With Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen
Directed by David Cronenberg
Distributed by Scream Factory
Long before Christopher Walken became the caricature he adopted today, the man had a series of strong dramatic roles that came to define him as an actor capable of great variety and unattached emotion. Those forces were matched by a row of talented murderers above the line in 1983 when director David Cronenberg and producers Dino De Laurentiis and Debra Hill reunited for an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1979 novel, The dead zone. King’s work is ubiquitous on screens these days, but by the time this feature started production, it was only the fifth project created from his work, with the previous four being Carrie (1976), The brilliant (1980), Horror show (1982), and Cujo (1983) – almost all directors with big shoes to fill. But Cronenberg is in a league of its own as well, and with Walken’s human performance, the film manages to maintain King’s tone and succeed as a worthy adaptation even with many (needed) story changes.
Walken plays Johnny Smith, a teacher in Castle Rock, Maine, who courts Sarah (Brooke Adams). Suddenly, a car accident leaves him in a coma for five years. When Johnny wakes up, his world has changed; Not only is Sarah now married and has children, she has acquired a strange new ability to see visions through time just by touching a person’s hand. The past, the present, the future, everything is clear to Johnny thanks to this heightened sense. Once the news of his powers is known, he attracts all kinds of desperate people looking for answers; the film takes a closer look at three of these encounters. First, a puzzled policeman, Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt), enlists Johnny’s help in catching a serial killer. Next, a high society dad (Anthony Zerbe) asks Johnny to tutor his son and get him out of the depressed state he’s living in. Finally, a political candidate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), shakes hands with Johnny at a rally, and Johnny immediately sees a future with Stillson as president. It’s a future he can’t let come true.
By the time news of Johnny’s arcane abilities comes to light, it feels like the world has changed. Suddenly here is a man who can answer life’s biggest questions. But all Johnny wants is to be left alone. He feels overwhelmed by this miraculous gift and there is enough material in this revelation alone to fuel several seasons of a TV series (which they did, although I’m not sure which direction this has gone in. show), so the idea of dividing these encounters into three acts allows the film to focus on the different uses of Johnny’s “dead zone”. His decision to help Sheriff Bannerman has a utilitarian appeal to the community, and his efforts save lives, albeit at great cost. When he teaches the young boy, it shows Johnny’s selfless nature and his gifts are used sparingly but intelligently, especially towards the end of their relationship. He almost feels normal again. Finally, Johnny’s encounter with Stillson shows the global reach of this “dead zone” and how a man can really make a difference – if he knows the future. He plays with the age-old question: “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?” “
Related: Stephen King’s THE DEAD ZONE, The Definitive New Collector’s Edition Comes To Blu-ray July 27
Walken is just fantastic and it could be his best job. Johnny feels like a real man with simple hopes and aspirations that are put on hold not just because of his coma, but now because of this unwanted power. Walken presents Johnny as someone uncertain about his own future, delicately balancing his own life with the needs of nearly everyone else on the planet. It is a tall order for anyone. Johnny’s real tragedy lies in the loss of his relationship with Sarah. Adams is up to the task of meeting Walken’s emotional range, expressing his own frustration at having a new life when the man of his dreams suddenly returns to the world. The only other big name to do a remarkable job here is Martin Sheen, giving a performance that I found a bit too over the top and sometimes cartoonish. I have no doubt that this is how some career politicians run their teams, but Sheen doesn’t add much nuance to the man; he’s just gooey and crazy for power.
Besides the performance, there is so much more to enjoy. The strained direction of David Cronenberg. The cool and murky New England cinematography of Mark Irwin. The brilliant score by Michael Kamen. The film does not exceed its reception either, lasting a little over 100 minutes. Considering the other heavyweights of Cronenberg and King filmographies, this is a film that is a bit overlooked (it took forever to get this on Blu-ray). But it is clearly the product of these formidable talents and one of the first examples of how King’s work can be translated when given the right elements.
Related: William Sadler To Join Cast For Upcoming ‘Salem’s Lot’ Adaptation
Paramount first released it on Blu-ray in 2020 as part of a “Collection of 5 Stephen King films“, but this transfer was heavily criticized for being dated and ugly. No such concerns here, as Screaming plant reverted to the original camera negative for a 4K restoration which resulted in a perfect 1.85: 1 1080p picture. The clarity, the depth, the muted color palette, the black levels, the grain of the film – all exemplary. This is easily one of the best works of Scream Factory, and the record certainly crushes Paramount’s attempt.
The audio comes in two versions: English DTS-HD MA 5.1 or stereo 2.0, which was the original mix. Both songs sound great. I would even give the stereo track a slight edge when the dialogue is heard, although the multi-channel track obviously offers a wide sound field and more room for discrete effects. It’s not a very active movie anyway and either option will seem more than satisfactory. Subtitles are available in English.
- ALL-NEW 4K RESTORATION OF MOVIE FROM THE ORIGINAL CAMERA NEGATIVE
- NEW Sarah’s Story – an interview with actress Brooke Adams
- NEW Cold Visions: Producing The Dead Zone – with interviews with Production Manager John M. Eckert and Associate Producer Jeffrey Chernov
- NEW audio commentary with cinematographer Mark Irwin
- NEW audio commentary with film historian Michael Gingold
- NEW audio commentary with film historian / author Dr. Steve Haberman and filmmaker / film historian Constantine Nasr
- NEW audio commentary with film music historian Daniel Schweiger with individual sheet music selections
- Hell Trailers – Mick Garris on The Dead Zone
- Memories of the dead zone
- The look of the dead zone
- Visions of the dead zone
- The dead zone policy
- Theatrical trailer
- TV spots
- Behind the scenes again the gallery
- Optional SDH English subtitles for main feature film
The dead zone
Even if The dead zone wasn’t a major hit like some of King’s other early adaptations, it certainly sits at the top of his adapted films and is also one of Cronenberg’s best feature films. The release of Scream Factory is reaching new heights across the board. Buy it.