In the 1970s, I was reading everything that Stephen King wrote as fast as I could get my hands on it. I always thought “The Dead Zone,” his 1979 novel of a man with psychic powers trying to live a normal life and, failing that, trying to stop an apocalypse, ranked right up there with his work of the time, including “Salem’s Lot” and “The Stand.”
And I thought director David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation of King’s book was among the best movie versions of the author’s work. Much better than Kubrick’s “The Shining,” for example.
Watching “The Dead Zone” again recently, I think it’s held up remarkably well. The story is a pretty timeless one of love and loss and its small-town setting keeps everything from looking too dated.
Christopher Walken – who has, in the 30-plus years since “The Dead Zone” was released, become an icon and has verged on self-parody – plays John Smith, a Maine school teacher looking forward to marrying his girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams).
But Smith has an accident and is in a coma for five years. Although his parents are still around, Sarah has married someone else and had a young child.
Before he even gets out of bed, Johnny discovers another change: His coma has apparently awakened within him a psychic ability. If he touches someone, he can read their mind and see visions of their future. He is even able to tell his doctor, played by Herbert Lom, that his mother, separated from him in Europe in World War II, is still alive.
Not surprisingly, this unexpected talent doesn’t bring Johnny any peace of mind or comfort. Particularly when he touches the hand of a huckstering politician, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) and sees that he’s destined to one day be elected president and bring about the end of the world.
King’s book has more layers, but Cronenberg’s movie does a pretty good job of capturing the details and somber mood of King’s story.
Johnny is a haunted man, a man who can see everyone else’s future but has no future of his own, and the character is perfectly played by the Christopher Walken of 1983. The actor hadn’t yet become so familiar to us, through offbeat characters in movies like “Pulp Fiction” and through TV appearances on “Saturday Night Live” (“I pranked him in my basement”). We had a bad feeling about Johnny Smith just by looking at Walken’s pale and pained face.
Cronenberg’s movie feels as fresh as if it was made just a few years ago, thanks in part to its lack of trendy-at-the-time touches and the chilly blue-gray “look.”
It’s startling seeing Sheen as a maniacal, murderous president. That’s President Bartlet, man!
“The Dead Zone” makes me wonder why Brooke Adams, so good in this and the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remake, didn’t have a longer movie career.
Lom, who played “The Phantom of the Opera” way back in the 1960s and the nemesis of Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” movies in the 1970s, is a nice, steadying presence here.
Anthony Zerbe, one of my favorite character actors of the 1970s, is likewise welcome here as a potential campaign donor who sees through Stillson’s shtick.