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The Dead Zone, written by David Cronenberg from the book by Stephen King, directed by David Cronenberg, 1983, 100 min.

The Dead Zone is possibly the best adaptation of a book that I have ever seen on the big screen -- jettisoning material where necessary, yet still keeping the full flavour of the book. Cronenberg has an incredible visual knack, and he's no slouch at writing either. The material is right up his alley, and while there is perhaps less shock value than usual for a Cronenberg film, the viewer does not feel cheated. Some of the best shocks of the book, both visceral and moral, are right here, along with a tightly-wound story, excellent characterization, suspense, and lots of visual style. There are one or two missteps, about which I'll talk more in a minute. But these do not detract from the movie in any serious way. The Dead Zone is likely filed among all the brain-dead horror movies in your video store, as it was in mine, but the venture down that row of cheap fright is definitely worthwhile when you're looking for this movie.

The plot proceeds much as in the book. Johnny Smith is a teacher in a small town, with a girlfriend named Sarah, and a bright future ahead of him. An accident takes all that away, leaving him in a coma for four and a half years. When he wakes up, Sarah has married someone else and Johnny has a certain gift, a kind of psychic ability to foresee bad things. Cronenberg pulls out all the stops in the first vision, where Johnny sees that a nurse's house is on fire. I wasn't so much frightened by the screaming child, although that was an emotional manipulation that certainly worked. I liked the way Johnny himself became part of the scene, in the burning house and then back in the hospital with a burning bed. And smaller details, like the boiling fishbowl. The visions, and the corresponding media attention, ruin his life. Sheriff Bannerman from Castle Rock arrives, unsolved murders on his mind, and once that particular subplot has been resolved, Johnny has a vision of the end of the world while shaking the hand of a local politician, Greg Stillson.

The characters are well-written and excellently acted. Not surprisingly, the movie plays up the relationship between Johnny and Sarah, making it more coherent across the entire length of the story. Johnny himself is portrayed wonderfully by Christopher Walken, who is perfect for this kind of role (and it may not be a simple matter of type-casting at this point in his career). I loved Walken's performance, although it did have one or two features that gave me second thoughts. Walken often clips off a line, with a kind of abrupt finality. Sometimes when this happened I thought this was the intention of Walken (along with Cronenberg) and fit in nicely with his character. For example, Johnny's sarcastic remark about a "coma diet." But at other times, it almost felt like I should chalk it up to bad delivery. At one point, Sarah asks Johnny why all this might have happened to him. His answer, in a short burst: "Bad luck." Something felt off with that line. Walken certainly performs under the pressure of big scenes, and most of the cast respond with the same level of ability.

As I stated in my review of King's book, the idea of the psychic is not particularly original and the charm of the story is in its telling. Cronenberg captures the anguish of Johnny as he wakes up out of a coma to deal with his changed life. And the visions are filmed with verve, and are quite memorable. Unfortunately, the dilemma of killing Hitler is glossed over in a scene that lasts about thirty seconds or less. The forward momentum of the story could have used a little break, because the point is an important one.

Cronenberg makes a number of changes, as would be necessary in compressing a 400+ page book into about two hours of screen time. But he does so with none of the customary slip-ups that happen in book adaptations. He knows when to cut, and when to take the time for an significant scene. For example, Cronenberg brings Johnny to the accident far more swiftly than does King, and rightly so (no complaints against the carnival scene, but there are time restraints here). As I said earlier, Cronenberg makes the relationship between Johnny and Sarah more of an ongoing thing. Two of the finest moments in the film are not in the book, and those who have seen the movie will know immediately what I am talking about. The campaigner on Johnny's front door. And the identity of the child that Stillson grabs. Oddly, Cronenberg leaves out a pivotal scene from the book, when Johnny "sees" the location of Sarah's lost wedding ring. But Sarah's spooked reaction would not have fit in with this new construction of their relationship. Cronenberg also fiddles with some other details, like the age of the kid Johnny is tutoring in the last half of the book. The younger kid allows Cronenberg to substitute drowning as the threatening disaster, instead of a second fire as in King's version. All in all, a masterful adaptation.

Cronenberg uses only a few of the tired tricks of horror movies, like the sudden burst of loud music. I disliked the stereotypical scene where Johnny and Sheriff Bannerman break down the bathroom door of the Castle Rock Murderer. Apart from those few instances, Cronenberg builds suspense and unease from the situations and from the characters, not gore and loud crashes of music. As such, the movie is quite an achievement.

Also see the review of the book this movie is based on.

Last modified: March 12, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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