Original release: October 21st, 1983
Running time: 103 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: Jeffrey Boam, James Poe, Stephen King (novel)
Cast: Christopher Walken, Tom Skerritt, Martin Sheen
We’d all like to have psychic powers. The ability to read other people’s minds, to see far beyond our normal capabilities and know what’s to come – it’s all very tempting. The advantages could be endless, there’s so much we’d be able to achieve in our lives…
Yet we rarely consider the downsides and what it’s really like for those who are gifted with such a sensitive nature. Would you be able to turn it off at will? What happens when everyone’s thoughts become so much louder than your own? What would it feel like to see your own death?
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, The Dead Zone is set in Castle Rock, Maine, where we meet schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken). Following a car crash, Johnny ends up in a coma and when he wakes he feels lucky to be alive. Johnny then learns he’s lost five years and as he tries to return to the life he once knew, he discovers that through physical contact he can tell a person’s past, present and future.
At first he uses his newfound abilities to help others. He reunites his doctor with his long-lost mother and saves a child from a fire, but when the media picks up on the story, Johnny finds himself ostracized from the community he was once part of.
When he attends a political rally and shakes the hand of US Senatorial Candidate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny ‘sees’ he’ll become the president but Stillson will also be responsible for nuclear strike against Russia that will set into motion a nuclear holocaust.
After finding out he’ll eventually die from a brain tumour, Johnny realises it’s his duty to stop Stillson from reaching the White house – at whatever cost. He has nothing to lose anyway, and begins planning the politician’s assassination with the hope of changing the future, even if he can’t change his own.
The Dead Zone is a film that balances elements of tragedy, suspense and horror to create a story that’s engaging from beginning to end. Walken brings a vulnerability and tension to his role of the tormented teacher whose gift quickly becomes a curse. He’s fascinating to watch and it’s hard not to feel his anguish. As one of my favourite actors, it’s in this role, along with Communion (1989) that I find him most compelling.
Unable to teach in a large classroom anymore, he starts offering private tuition and even though most of the people in Castle Rock don’t want anything to do with him, Johnny is driven by a deep-seated sense of moral duty to do what’s right. He even helps track down a killer with local the Sheriff, Bannerman (Tom Skerritt).
The ever versatile Sheen lends a credible performance as the cowardly but power hungry politician who’s being groomed for a life in the Oval Office. He has no idea, like any of us, what his future actions are going to bring about.
Johnny’s precognitive abilities don’t bring him any of the comforts we might imagine they would. His is a world that’s filled with nightmares, whether he’s awake or not – he can’t shut it off. Even the young boy he tutors, he already knows he’s growing to drown when he falls through the ice into a lake. What do you do with knowledge like that? Will doing anything at all only help to bring about the vision you’ve just glimpsed?
It’s relentless, and like Johnny’s tumour, the film feels like a darkness that’s only growing, consuming everything that was good in his life before the coma. In doing so, what Cronenberg and King tell us with this story is that nothing’s set in stone. Nothing is as predetermined as it seems; even though Johnny is able to see the future, it can still be changed. He changes not only the fate of the world, but also his own; choosing a course of actions that will lead to his own demise, but on his terms and not the one he foresaw.
After all, what would be the point in seeing the future if you can only watch it unfold – helpless to prevent the things you see coming.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .