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Why The Dead Zone is a brilliantly executed tragic love story

Updated: Jan 26

WARNING: This article includes spoilers for The Dead Zone, which is a 40 year-old movie.


Christopher Walken playing John Smith in the David Cronenberg film The Dead Zone (1983).
Trapped in Darkness: John Smith (Christopher Walken) is cursed with the power of premonition after waking from a coma.

DAVID Cronenberg’s underrated classic, The Dead Zone, should be recognised as a tragic love story rather than the political cautionary tale for which it has become famous.


In 1983, the Canadian auteur made his first movie in the United States, and a brief detour from the bloody swathe of brilliant body horror films he was carving out, by adapting Stephen King’s bestselling novel. Fresh from the fleshy delights of Scanners and Videodrome and just before The Fly, this was the first film he had made which he hadn't scripted himself.


Despite being the product of two masters of terror, The Dead Zone is a paranormal thriller which explores love and loss rather than a full-on horror movie. Nonetheless, it still manages to pack an emotional punch. In recent years, it’s been hailed as a cautionary tale, which predicted the rise of political populists to power across the world. While undoubtedly this is a key theme it’s also only half the story. The Dead Zone is a brilliant, yet tragic, love story.


The story focuses on mild-mannered English teacher, John Smith (Christopher Walken), whose dream of a happily married life crumbles around him when a car accident leaves him comatose. Waking after five years, he discovers his fiancé, Sarah (Brooke Adams), has married and had a child with another. To add insult to injury, the convalescing character discovers he’s cursed with horrifying visions, when he dreams that his nurse’s daughter is trapped in a burning house. This ability leads the protagonist inexorably into a confrontation with charming US senate candidate, Greg Stillson (a maniacal Martin Sheen). The shell-shocked teacher foresees the scheming politician becoming President of the USA and, while in the grip of egomaniacal fervour, provoking a nuclear war with the USSR.


For all the obvious politics, the movie’s core is the relationship between the thwarted lovers. It’s the golden thread which injects vital lightness at crucial moments, provides pathos and an emotional punch needed to engage the viewer in what otherwise would be an alienating narrative.


Christopher Walken, playing John Smith, and Brooke Adams, playing Sarah, in the David Cronenberg film The Dead Zone (1983).
Thwarted love: Sarah (Brooke Adams) and John (Christopher Walken) share a brief moment together.

Crucially, the love story supplies a glimpse of who he could have been before being irrevocably changed by the accident. In the film’s most tender scene, Sarah and her infant son visit the reclusive John, and the duo consummate their long-denied feelings. Afterwards, they sit around the table with Sarah making dinner – a brief picture of family happiness before she returns to her new life. It’s a moment which emphasises what he’s had ripped away from him. To make matters worse, the terrifying premonitions which have filled the void have also left their own debilitating mental toll. Consequently, he’s emotionally frozen; trapped in a nightmare and paralyzed. The intense snow and ice which plague his hometown of Castle Rock reflect his mental state.


Cronenberg cruelly drops his luckless main character inside his visions as a helpless spectator to ramp up the terror for him and the audience alike. The bar is set high from the start: the image of John lying helplessly in a blazing child’s bed is shocking. According to Cronenberg, Walken asked the director to fire a 45 magnum in the air when filming his reaction to the episodes, but the lovelorn John’s true character is revealed by his human response in the most extreme of moments. While aiding Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) hunt for a serial killer, he relives a girl’s brutal murder and - in a particularly powerful scene - is consumed by guilt for his inability to save the victim. It’s a telling reaction, reinforcing his decency and despair, which is only heightened for the audience by the knowledge of what he’s lost.


The film’s episodic story structure is propelled along by the horrific visions; their order is plotted to lead viewers to accept the absolute veracity of his ability. Early on, they depict contemporary moments or from the past, which only deepens his hopelessness but also confirm their accuracy. As his condition deteriorates, he starts to see the future and discovers when changing a student’s grim fate, that his predictions can be changed. This is the Dead Zone, a sense of the unknown potential on the fringes of perception.



Martin Sheen playing Gregg Stillson in the David Cronenberg film The Dead Zone (1983).
President Evil: Psychotic senatorial candidate Gregg Stillson (Martin Sheen).

Based on this understanding the film asks how John should deal with the psychotic Stillson. Remember, he and the audience understand that the crackpot candidate will unleash a nuclear firestorm on the world. Should he sacrifice his own humanity to kill the man who will unleash such destruction? The answer is yes. But the love story adds emotional heft to the dramatic denouement. John fails in his attempt to assassinate Stillson (and is himself fatally shot) at a rally in his hometown. Despite that, he succeeds in killing the candidate’s reputation when the would-be demagogue uses Sarah’s baby as a human shield. As he lies dying, John foresees the disgraced politician, who is mocked on the front page of Time Magazine for his craven action, committing suicide. But the emotional power comes from the psychic’s last moments dying in the arms of the distraught Sarah, which is a poignant reminder of what could have been.


The love story injected emotional connection into what otherwise would be a cold-hearted tale of loss and pain. Inversely, contrasting the fleeting moments of happiness John experiences only accentuates the grim reality of his life. This would not have been achieved without Walken's nuanced performance, while Michael Kamens’ lovelorn theme sets the tone perfectly. The political aspect has made The Dead Zone relevant, but the key to its success is being able to connect with the audience through its timeless tale of love and loss. Associate producer Jeffrey Chernov put it best about Cronenberg’s achievement in The Dead Zone: “The first time he had reached for the heart instead of the throat.”


 

THE DEAD ZONE TRIVIA

1. David Cronenberg originally shot a prologue showing John as a child having a premonition but opted against using it.


2. In iconic Tunnel scene, the beautifully shot and atmospheric tunnel was sprayed with water that froze immediately because of the sub-zero temperatures.


3. In the scene where Sarah visits John and makes love to him, she wears red to represent her feelings and true intentions.


4. The Dead Zone was the first film David Cronenberg made in the USA.


5. David Cronenberg fired guns while filming Christopher Walken experience the visions.


6. Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic artwork was the inspiration for Greg Stillson’s campaign art and harks back to a vision of a simpler and more prosperous USA.


7. The first vision, the child’s burning bedroom, had to be redone because the original featured a small ET toy on fire.


8. The film and the book are based loosely on the life of Pete Hurkos, who acquired his power by allegedly falling off a ladder.


9. Cronenberg changed what the Dead Zone was for the film. In the book, it’s means the unused parts of the brain (which is a much-used movie trope and myth) but in the film, it’s the potential to change the future his premonitions reveal.


10. The crew built a gazebo in the town of Niagra-on-the-Lake for the serial killer section of the film. While initially being unpopular with the residents, they liked it so much they decided to keep it and use images of it in promotional materials.


11. The town of Castle Rock, where The Dead Zone was set, was also the setting for Stephen King stories Cujo, Stand By Me, The Dark Half and Needful Things.


12. Singin in the Rain director Stanley Donen originally wanted to adapt The Dead Zone into a film.

 

Interesting Links

  • A fascinating documentary on YouTube about how The Dead Zone was made, featuring David Cronenberg and many others involved.

  • A wide ranging interview with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, where he talks about how he ended up working on The Dead Zone.

  • A comprehensive article from Den of Geek about The Dead Zone.

  • The original review of The Dead Zone by The New York Times.

  • Stephen King and David Cronenberg discuss Gregg Stillson and modern politics in this Yahoo News article.


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