Late to the Party: ‘The Dead Zone’ (1983)

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The Dead Zone Stephen King David Cronenberg
via Chris Fischer

Welcome back to another weekly edition of Late to the Party, the review series that pits iHorror writers against the cult classics and fan favorites we somehow haven’t seen. This week is all about David Cronenberg’s take on Stephen King’s novel, The Dead Zone. This 1983 classic features Christopher Walken, Tom Skerritt, Martin Sheen, and a lot of chewed scenery.

I really wanted to review The Dead Zone because it was filmed in a town in which I spend an obnoxious amount of time, Niagara-on-the-Lake (in Ontario, Canada).

So that being said, let’s start with a fun fact. The gazebo (featured in the film as a location where a young woman was brutally murdered by the Castle Rock Killer) was built specifically for the film and donated to the town. It is now a wildly popular location for wedding photos and a tourist favorite for quaint-as-hell picnic lunches.

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The Dead Zone also features a scene in the notorious Screaming Tunnel! Local landmarks – creepier than you think!

As previously mentioned, The Dead Zone is a film adaptation of Stephen King’s fifth novel published under his own name (his seventh novel when including the two published under Richard Bachman). It’s also the first novel that focuses on the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine (which has inspired an upcoming anthology series).

A TV series adaptation followed in 2002 that ran for six seasons, ending in 2007. Six seasons! That’s insane.

Anyways, on to the film.

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The plot concerns Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), a school teacher who is involved in an automobile accident that leaves him in a coma for five years. When Johnny wakes up, he discovers that he has some psychic abilities that allow him to see tragic events in the lives of those he touches.

Johnny is able to use his newfound skill to save the lives of those around him and shed some light on past secrets. This weighs on him greatly, and after he is enlisted to help track down a serial murderer (which ends in a delightfully gruesome way, as we would expect from David Cronenberg), Johnny chooses to live in seclusion to avoid future trauma.

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The titular “dead zone” refers to an area of Johnny’s brain that suffered damage as a result of the accident. This “dead zone” curses Johnny with these violent visions, but it also grants him the possibility of altering the outcome of what he sees.

That’s, essentially, the crux and climax of the film. Johnny sees a future in which a volatile politician, Greg Stillson, (played by Martin Sheen) wins the presidency. In this vision, Stillson orders a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union that results in a nuclear holocaust. Johnny struggles with the pressure of knowing this possible outcome and decides that he must do something to prevent this global tragedy.

The film does a wonderful job of wrapping up the story in a satisfying (if not, perhaps, abrupt) way.

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The Dead Zone weaves the spectacular world of the psychic and occult with the reality of everyday life seamlessly. The scenes of Johnny’s visions feel deeply rooted in reality, which makes them even more shocking and unnerving.

Normally, you would think this gift would be desirable, but it’s easy to see the affect the traumatic images have on Johnny. It’s no surprise he would want to distance himself from that.

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Christopher Walken’s performance as Johnny Smith evokes sympathy and understanding from the audience. Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson, on the other hand, is so perfectly unhinged. Stillson is a smarmy crowd-pleasing politician with a hair-trigger for emotional outbursts. It’s… eerily familiar these days (good thing this was pre-twitter).

During the scenes with Stillson on the campaign trail, the crowd reverberates with chants of “Stillson! Stillson! Stillson!”. Because of the strong emphasis on the first syllable, these cries sound a lot more like “Kill! Kill! Kill!”, which is actually perfect.

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Overall, it’s an impressive film from a legendary director with a spectacular cast, based on a novel by the most prolific genre writer of our time.

You really can’t go wrong there.

 

Stay tuned next week for more Late to the Party, or check out our past reviews here!

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