David Cronenberg tackles Stephen King with The Dead Zone, a conventional 1983 thriller that is not without deeper meaning. The screenplay Jeffrey Boam turns the 1979 novel of the same name into an episodic yarn and Michael Kamen’s pronounced but isolated score encapsulates the frosty environs.
The Dead Zone is perhaps Cronenberg’s most controlled picture to date, but it does not suffer for it. The impartiality feels like a genuine extension of his Canadian sensibility, the sort of offhand isolation that looks at things like opulence, politics and relationships through a detached lens.
Christopher Walken stars as teacher Johnny Smith and he’s in love with Sarah (Brooke Adams). After a date, Johnny gets into a car accident and slips into a coma for five years. When he comes to, he discovers that Sarah’s moved on. He’s under the care of Dr. Weizak (Herbert Lom).
As Johnny tries to pull his life together, he learns that he has abilities: he can absorb the secrets of an individual through physical contact. With his life in ruins, he doesn’t accept his new ability as a gift – at least at first. But soon, Johnny’s helping the police solve murders and piecing together the truth about a smarmy politician (Martin Sheen).
Cronenberg’s picture is laced with biblical references. Johnny’s mother (Jackie Burroughs) is an intensely religious woman, but her son can’t overcome just how much has been taken away. He blames God. It is hard to count one’s blessings when one’s blessings are married to another man.
Nevertheless, Johnny’s been given a gift that likely manifested elsewhere. An early scene on a rollercoaster hints at this, with a splitting headache overtaking the protagonist like a bolt from heaven. Fate’s inexorable claw reaches out and Johnny discovers the awful power that comes with changing the future.
Would the world be better off with an intervening god figure? If so, who would this deity arbitrate on behalf of? The Dead Zone parses this by having Johnny act in certain scenarios, like when he uses his foresight to catch a killer or when he stops a boy (Simon Craig) from going on a deadly hockey trip.
At the same time, this gift of salvation for others is killing Johnny. His physical self depreciates and Cronenberg restrains himself by denying the details, choosing instead to explore the metaphysics of losing touch. By the time Johnny makes his sacrifice, an act that spins off its purpose but still achieves its result via hysterical irony, the sanctification is whole again.
It’s not hard to see through the political finish. Sheen is excellent as an obsequious creature, the sort of devil that would manifest as some sort of tangerine ogre if the real world had suicidal dreams. Cronenberg doesn’t spend too much time on it, but the mushrooming perdition of the senatorial candidate’s worldview is catalyst enough for Johnny’s intervention.
As good as The Dead Zone is at parsing the spiritual and political, it is Walken that draws everything into the foreground. His performance is measure-perfect, a concerto of tragic precariousness and withdrawn refinement. He achieves a lot with a little. He shatters glass with his cane. It all works.
And Cronenberg proves himself equal to the measure of a solid cast, pushing without pushing and restraining without losing spirit. While The Dead Zone may lack the maniacal body horror of preceding efforts like Rabid and The Brood, it does travel the same unnerving road with an eye on the frozen black beneath.