Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 10, 2020)
Because 1976’s Carrie became a hit, you’d think Hollywood would’ve rushed to produce more movies based on the novels of Stephen King. However, we’d not get another adaptation until TV’s Salem’s Lot in 1979, and King wouldn’t reappear on movie screens until 1980’s The Shining.
Perhaps the prestige Stanley Kubrick brought prompted Hollywood floodgates to open, as King novels soon became a staple of multiplexes. 1983 turned into a breakthrough year for King, with three cinematic adaptations: Christine, Cujo and The Dead Zone.
In the latter, schoolteacher Johnny (Christopher Walken) leaves his girlfriend Sarah Bracknell’s (Brooke Adams) house but he doesn’t make it home. Johnny gets into a major car accident that renders him comatose for five years.
When Johnny finally comes out of his slumber, he finds he possesses a bizarre new gift, as he boasts psychic powers that allow him to “read” people if he touches them. This creates trauma in Johnny’s life, and a dilemma when he contacts a rising politician and discerns that his election will lead to massive calamity.
And that candidate’s name was Donald Trump!
During the early years of King adaptations, one concept held mostly true: they came from prominent filmmakers. Of course, some didn’t enjoy fame pre-King – for instance, Carrie was Brian De Palma’s breakout film – but with directors like De Palma, Kubrick, Tobe Hooper, George Romero and John Carpenter involved, the filmmakers through 1983 remain well-known. Only Cujo’s Lewis Teague failed to make a real name for himself.
Back in 1983, Zone’s David Cronenberg was mainly famous for 1981’s shocker Scanners. 1983 also brought another low-budget Cronenberg creepfest via Videodrome, but Zone marked his ascension to mainstream fare.
Cronenberg’s brief ascension, I should say, as this period essentially ended after 1986’s The Fly. Though that film became a hit, Cronenberg soon reverted to his less commercial form.
This seems like a shame, as Hollywood could’ve used more from someone as quirky as Cronenberg. The seemingly endless stream of semi-hacks who directed many King novels after 1983 shows how much the author’s work benefited from quality filmmakers.
Zone doesn’t match up with a classic like Cronenberg’s Fly, but the director nonetheless manages to elevate the material in a way a lesser director wouldn’t. He keeps matters just off-kilter enough to keep the viewer unbalanced and the film less predictable.
Of course, the presence of Walken as the lead adds to that, as the man couldn’t give a boring performance if he tried. Not that Walken always offers good work, as he can be pretty bad at times, and he threatens to feel miscast as Johnny.
This seems mainly applicable in the movie’s first act, largely because Johnny needs to seem like an Average Joe during those scenes. Walken struggles to depict Johnny as a typical dude in these moments.
Once Johnny emerges from his coma, though, the character turns odder, and this fits Walken’s style better. Perversely, Johnny seems less weird as the movie progresses, likely because the script allows the role to fit the Walken persona better.
Despite his natural tendency toward quirkiness, Walken suits the post-coma Johnny well and his talents add layers to the part. He actually underplays the part to a degree and that makes Johnny’s haunted nature more impactful,
Though I joked earlier about the connection to Trump, candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) bears a resemblance to the current president: an angry, bullying, loud-mouthed phony populist. Hollywood’s go-to actor for charismatic politicians for years, Sheen usually goes for a Kennedy vibe, but here he lets Stillson seem darker and less likable
This inverts our usual view of Sheen as Candidate. Our sense memory of Sheen in this sort of role lets us believe him, but he brings a shady tone to the role that works. Even when Stillson becomes a ranting megalomaniac – and Sheen emotes to the back rows – we still swallow him.
I don’t know where I’d place Dead Zone on the list of King adaptations, but I’d probably rank it close to the top. Well-plotted, steady and tense, the movie fulfills its potential.