Looking back at David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone

Feature Ryan Lambie 11 Dec 2012 - 08:10

Christopher Walken stars in Cronenberg’s 1983 film, The Dead Zone. Ryan looks back at a great Stephen King adaptation...

On the face of it, David Cronenberg's decision to take on an adaptation of Stephen King's 1979 novel The Dead Zone must have seemed a strange one back in the 1980s. Having just directed the disturbing and downright brilliant Videodrome the year before, Cronenberg then signed up to direct a relatively mainstream movie, an adaptation of another writer's work (his first) with a paranormal subject matter - an unusual topic for a cerebral director with little time for the supernatural.

But as Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining proved, the pairing of an analytical filmmaker with a pop horror premise can produce movie magic, as though the collision of these two opposing forces somehow creates a unique spark of its own. This certainly proved to be the case with The Dead Zone, a supernatural drama that is less grandiose than The Shining, and less sensationally violent than Brian De Palma’s Carrie, but stands alongside both as one of the very best Stephen King horror adaptations yet seen.

Light relief?

After Videodrome, it seems that Cronenberg was looking for a tonal break from his previous film's maelstrom of kinky sex, mind-control and death. "Videodrome was a very heavy experience," the director said in the book, Cronenberg On Cronenberg. "If you're used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a very heavy picture. But if you're used to Videodrome, Dead Zone is not. At that point I needed to do something based on somebody else's work, as a relief."

It says a great deal about Cronenberg's style as a filmmaker that this supposed 'relief' entailed a shoot in a frozen Ontario, Canada, where temperatures plummeted past freezing, leaving actors shivering and fractious. Then again, the inch-thick snow and tangible breath-on-the-air coldness added to the movie's oppressive atmosphere; The Dead Zone is about a young man suddenly thrust into the winter of his life, where every premonition makes him a little more frail, a little closer to the abyss.

The combination of the snowy Canadian landscape (standing in for King's usual Maine setting) and Christopher Walken's haunted, wan face make for an absorbing experience in themselves; with the addition of Cronenberg's taut direction, Michael Kamen’s beautifully lonely score and Jeffrey Boam's episodic yet perfectly paced screenplay, the results are hypnotic.

Walken plays Johnny Smith, a mild-mannered teacher in the New England town of Castle Rock. In a blissfully happy relationship with a work colleague, Sarah (Brooke Adams), Johnny's stable life is torn apart when he's involved in a collision with an out-of-control tanker, sending him into a coma which lasts for five years.

Waking up weakened and utterly out of step with the world - his girlfriend Sarah "Cleaves unto another man," as his maniacally religious mother puts it - Johnny discovers that he's somehow acquired a psychic power: he can see both the past and future of those he touches. When clasping the hand of a nurse, he foresees that her daughter's about to be caught in a housefire. Contact with his doctor, Sam Weizak (the great Herbert Lom) reveals his past suffering in World War II, and also the revelation that his mother, whom Sam had assumed had perished, is still alive.

Johnny’s new ability comes at a price: each time he uses it, his headaches appear to worsen and his strength dissipates. Although initially reluctant to use his ‘gift’ - which, like the psychic powers in Scanners, is also a curse - Johnny’s growing loneliness prompts him to help a local sheriff solve a series of murders. Although Johnny succeeds in identifying the Castle Rock Killer, he’s injured in the process, causing him to retreat further into seclusion. Later, Johnny’s chance encounter with a presidential hopeful named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) leaves him with an apocalyptic glimpse of the future: if Stillson becomes president, he’ll trigger a nuclear holocaust. With his health rapidly fading, Johnny has to decide whether he has the resolve to kill the life of one man in order to save millions...

Origins

The Dead Zone was optioned shortly after its publication in 1979, and several screenwriters and directors were involved in its production before Cronenberg took over the project in 1982. Stanley Donen (Hollywood’s ‘King of Musicals’, with his CV including Singin’ In The Rain), John Badham and Michael Cimino were once attached to direct, while Stephen King had attempted to write a draft of the screenplay himself.

“Stephen King’s own script was terrible,” Cronenberg later said. “It was not only bad as a script, it was the kind of script that his fans would have torn me apart for doing [...] It was basically a really ugly, unpleasant slasher script. The Castle Rock killer in the middle of the movie becomes the lead, and it was, ‘Let’s show lots of his victims.’”

Jeffrey Boam concurred, later stating that King had “Missed the point of his own book.”

In the process of adaptation, Cronenberg and Boam greatly streamlined King’s long and complex novel. The narrative switches between Johnny and Greg Stillson were removed, with the story told entirely from the protagonist’s point of view. Although violence remains in Cronenberg’s movie (not least its eye-watering ‘scissors suicide’ scene, long cut by the UK's film board), it’s less graphic and excessive than the book; Greg Stillson no longer kicks a dog to death, and Johnny’s deterioration is suggested rather than patent. This is Cronenberg at the height of his creative restraint.

The story was simplified further in the final edit. Cronenberg had originally filmed a pre-credits scene in which Johnny suffers a head injury while ice-skating as a young boy - the implied genesis of his psychic powers. Cronenberg ultimately trimmed this out, leaving only the vague suggestion that Johnny already had some sort of latent power before his accident - as hinted at in the scene where he suffers a sharp head pain while riding on a rollercoaster.

Although wildly different from his previous movies, at least on the surface, The Dead Zone represented a further stage in Cronenberg’s development as a filmmaker. Surrounding himself with a remarkable cast - including the great Anthony Zerbe appearing in a brief role as a hard-nosed millionaire who foolishly refuses to take Johnny’s advice - Cronenberg showed off his talent as an actors’ director.

While his earlier movies were full of excellent individual performances (Samanthar Eggar in The Brood, Michael Ironside in Scanners, James Woods in Videodrome), The Dead Zone was perhaps the first Cronenberg movie to feature a uniformly sterling cast. And shorn of the usual body-horror excess, those performances really sparkle: Martin Sheen is great as the alternately glad-handing and ranting right-wing maniac Greg Stillson, and gets one of the film’s best lines (“The missiles are flying. Hallelujah!”). Herbert Lom is equally good as Johnny’s doctor and confidante, as is Brooke Adams as Johnny’s unobtainable love.

It’s Christopher Walken, of course, who dominates the movie. With his walking stick, batwing coat and lonely eyes, he turns in an extraordinary performance, full of pathos, vulnerability and longing. Before filming began on The Dead Zone, various names were bandied around for the lead role. Curiously, Stephen King wanted Bill Murray. Cronenberg was concerned that Walken might be too old to play the part, and his original choice was his frequent collaborator Nicholas Campbell, who instead played the deputy sheriff Frank Dodd. The director later admitted that Walken was not only right for the role, but also the film’s enduring image.

“It’s Chris Walken’s face,” Cronenberg later said. “That’s the subject of the movie; that’s what the movie was about. All the things that are in his face.”

Aftermath

Although critics agreed, giving The Dead Zone some of the most positive reviews of Cronenberg’s career at that point, the movie didn’t have the popular impact it deserved. It still made money - approximately $20million on a budget of $10million - but the movie wasn’t a hit of the same magnitude of, say, Carrie, and only made about as much money as Lewis Teague’s tepid adaptation of King’s Cujo, or John Carpenter’s rendering of Christine, also released in 1983.

After finishing the movie, Cronenberg’s career briefly entered a sort of dead zone of its own. He worked on an original script for Universal which was never filmed, and he then became embroiled in the production of Total Recall. He turned in a dozen or so drafts of his Total Recall script (which added several ideas Schwarzenegger would encounter in 1990, including subterranean mutants on Mars), but repeated creative differences with producers Dino De Laurentiis and Ron Sushett left the project withering on the vine. Having spent around a year working on Total Recall, the production ground to a halt. Eventually, Cronenberg would go on to direct The Fly, released in 1986 - a studio movie which finally found the audience it deserved.

The Dead Zone, meanwhile, remains one of Cronenberg’s fascinating creative experiments. A cold, brooding and desperately melancholy movie, it’s also beautifully shot - the stark image of a silhouetted figure standing in a tunnel, the light on the dank stone walls forming what looks like a spider’s web, was so striking that it became the basis of the film’s poster.

And fittingly, for a film about predictions of the future, The Dead Zone hinted at the new strain of Cronenberg movie which would later emerge - movies such as Dead Ringers, Spider and A History Of Violence. Movies that are dramatic, ominous, and full of coiled restraint. 

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