Shout!/Scream Factory Prediction #1: The Dead Zone, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Dead Zone
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Colleen Dewhurst, Anthony Zerbe, Martin Sheen
Synopsis: Bookish schoolteacher Jonny Smith (Walken) has an idyllic life in the quaint Maine town of Castle Rock but all of that is lost after a car accident that puts him in a coma for five years. Johnny wakes up, and much to his dismay the world around has changed, and he also has psychic powers; after becoming a sensation, Jonny must make a pivotal decision that could cost his life but alter the face of the future.
Critique: With a trail of boldly original and distinctive features behind him, The Dead Zone was Cronenberg’s most box office friendly, with a turnaround from critics who had until then dismissed the director, which is all the more ironic because The Dead Zone didn’t perform that well at the box office.
The minutiae of Stephen King adaptations is an article unto itself and the sliding scale of his work is pretty polarizing as King’s films tend to rate from “great” to “terrible.” By 1983 there had been a series of misfires in King adaptations (major exceptions being De Palma’s Carrie and The Shining) but the early 80s gave us Christine, Cujo, Children of the Corn, and, shortly after, Firestarter. Putting Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone in the middle almost makes it feel like they were being made alphabetically.
But it’s hard to discuss The Dead Zone and its various high points without touching on how weak it could have been. King’s original treatment was a glorified slasher film; Cronenberg found it “terrible.” Later, credited screenwriter Jeffrey Boam consolidated the novel into a cohesive narrative that we know today, omitting what would have been grave missteps like child torture, dog killing and gratuitous murders from the Castle Rock Killer. Ever notice the more King has to do with his screen adaptations, the worse they get?
The Dead Zone owes a lot to the script because it manages a full load of material and stays on track throughout; Jonny’s romance with Sarah, tracking the Castle Rock Killer, tutoring the name kid and, of course, the Stilson campaign. There’s a contained feel with each chapter, and some junctures lack transitional grace but that’s a small quibble in the greater scheme of things as Cronenberg’s film delivers this plethora of material reinforced by a smart and capable cast.
Walken remarkably imbues his character with a palpable sympathy. Jonny Smith has a brainy, sharp, peculiar quality, warm but a little volatile and passionate. Predating Walken’s reputation as a wildman actor, it’s phenomenal to see the emotional range he puts on display here; alongside Tom Skerritt, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen, and Herbert Lom, Walken succeeds in making the intangible tangible. The Dead Zone is a supernatural thriller, but Walken’s determined presence elevates the material substantially in tandem with Cronenberg’s direction; only because we feel that they respect what they’re doing, treating King’s story (or the screenplay of King’s story) with the dramatic integrity of any other drama.
Why It Should Go in the Production Line: It seems like Cronenberg’s filmography is divided up between Shout/Scream Factory and The Criterion Collection. While the director’s more classic body horror features went in Criterion’s direction (Naked Lunch, Videodrome, The Brood, Scanners) and his disturbing Dead Ringers went from OOP Criterion title to Scream Factory Blu-Ray and with the release of his second feature Rabid (within a week of each other), it feels like both premiere home video distributors have equal footing in the director’s filmography. Given the level of King adaptations to get the Factory makeover (Firestarter, Carrie, The Dark Half) and their proclivity toward Cronenberg’s work, I wouldn’t be surprised if we should see The Dead Zone get a Blu-ray release with that awesome new cover art and restored picture and sound. As it stands, the Australian Blu-Ray leaves a lot to be desired, and it doesn’t seem like Paramount has known how to market the film since it came out on DVD back in 2000. Along with Paramount, The Dead Zone is distributed by the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, who have co-opted titles with Shout/Scream Factory before with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Manhunter, Army of Darkness, Amityville 2 & 3 and Firestarter.
NOTE: Please keep in mind this article is not endorsed by or affiliated with Shout! Factory.