Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
If this 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel feels more like effective drama than horror, it’s because it sticks pretty close to the tone of its source material, which is probably the most heady and philosophical of King’s works.
Though the idea doesn’t really make the translation into film, the titular “Dead Zone” is King’s conception of the part of our minds that we don’t really understand–and can’t. In Johnny Smith’s case, it comes to the fore in the aftermath of a fateful car accident that sends him into a coma for a five years. When he emerges, life has left him behind; among other disappointments, his fiancee Sarah has married another man and has a child.
On top of all this, Johnny discovers he now has a “gift”: the ability to see into the past–and future–of other people through physical contact with them. Johnny finds the implications of this gift unsettling, particularly as he learns that the futures he sees can be changed, while those around him are intent to get a piece of Johnny for their own purposes.
But as Johnny limps through life, he sees little blessing and only a great deal of curse. After a particularly troubling encounter with a serial murderer, he settles into an out-of-the-way locale as a hermit-like tutor. In spite of his best intentions to isolate himself from physical contact, however, fate again throws him in the path of not only a terribly self-centered father, but a dangerously deranged candidate for President of the United States.
Remember that Johnny can see the future, right? And the future that Johnny sees is the darkest possible.
Now remember the Dead Zone. The crux is not what Johnny can see, but what he can’t see. And this is really the brilliance of King’s book and the movie, both of which tread the fine line between the need to take personal responsibility for what we know… and faith in the conviction that “evil will out,” as they say. Divine Providence, if you will, doesn’t work entirely on autopilot, says The Dead Zone. Evil may prosper when good people stand by and do nothing; but good people don’t have to everything on their own, either.
Christopher Walken, always compelling, is absolutely riveting as Johnny. Martin Sheen, in his gasket-popping prime, turns in a memorable supporting performance as would-be despot Stillson, while Anthony Zerbe, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, and Brooke Adams all do some of their best work here as well. And remember–this is the 1980s, pairing director David Cronenberg with Stephen King, so there are some really disturbing and macabre parts to this tale. I wouldn’t call it gore or horror, exactly, but this isn’t Sunday School flannelgraph material, either.
This is a winter film, too, perfectly suited for these chilling times in which troubled men with rifles roam a nation in political turmoil.