Posted on March 5, 2021

Revisiting The Dead Zone

Guest Post

This piece aspires to be a dual-purpose essay on the feature film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983). First, I will identify qualities that make it one of the most impactful of the King inspired movies almost 40 years after its original release. In the last several years societal events have led some to reevaluate The Dead Zone and ultimately recast it as a prescient political cautionary tale about the danger posed by aspiring demagogues. My second goal is to examine that claim’s validity more closely within the context of the film as a whole.

*** SPOILERS ABOUND *** from now on, so go watch the movie and meet me back here later. If you choose to soldier on anyway, here is a bare bones synopsis:

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) goes on a date with fellow school teacher and fiancée Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams). They end up at her place and when a heavy rainstorm hits, she invites Johnny to spend the night. Johnny demurs, saying that “Some things are worth waiting for.” On the drive home he is involved in a serious accident with an 18-wheeler, winding up in a coma.

Five years later, he wakes up to find that he is crippled, unemployed, and Sarah is now married. Johnny also has acquired the ability to experience visions of a person’s past or future by means of physical contact. After a chance encounter with senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) Johnny must face a terrible choice in order to prevent an unthinkable disaster.

There are so many movies based on King’s stories (at least fifty to date) that it is not surprising that they cluster into categories reflecting his various thematic interests. You have the Trapped Without Hope films such as Misery, Cujo, and Gerald’s Game. Then there’s the Possessed Machinery group which includes Christine, Maximum Overdrive, and The Mangler. The Dead Zone belongs in what I call the Psychics category along with films like Firestarter (1983) and Carrie (1976). The protagonists in these movies possess abilities that are portrayed as sources of weaponized empowerment. Little Charlie McGee unleashes a pyrokinetic firestorm to avenge her father’s death in the climax of Firestarter. Carrie’s famous Prom Sequence memorably depicts the ultimate put-upon teen’s revenge fantasy.

The Dead Zone’s depiction of Johnny Smith’s relationship with his “gift” turns this idea inside out. Embittered and heartbroken, he craves invisibility. Quoting his beloved Ichabod Crane, he wishes that “nobody troubled their head about him anymore.” When his first vision prevents the death of a child in a house fire, Johnny hopes to end the unwanted attention by arranging a press conference to bring closure to the incident. Instead, a pushy reporter causes things to go disastrously off the tracks. Escape from his cause-célèbre status proves to be impossible.

This push / pull dynamic effectively draws us into the story. But what keeps us there is one of Stephen King’s most compelling character creations. Johnny Smith’s Everyman name is no accident. We see Johnny as an ordinary person who has experienced the extraordinary. King shows us someone who is emotionally devastated but who is nonetheless capable of displaying both surprising naïveté and darkly self-deprecating humor. The fact that Johnny is so recognizably real is key because The Dead Zone rises or falls on the level of engagement that the audience has with its protagonist.

For a film so reliant on our connection to the main character, the selection of David Cronenberg to direct may have seemed counter-intuitive. This was Cronenberg’s first film directing someone else’s material. The male protagonists in even his best previous projects were often thinly written and come off as emotionally brittle. However, given a more well-rounded subject, Cronenberg proved more than up to the task. He clearly tones down his trademark body horror in the interest of capturing the spirit of King’s novel. Setting aside the highly disturbing Castle Rock serial killer sequence, you can make the case that The Dead Zone isn’t a horror film at all. Supported by Michael Kamen’s elegiac orchestral score, Cronenberg shrouds the film not so much in dread as an atmosphere of perpetual sorrow.

While King and Cronenberg’s contributions give The Dead Zone structure and style, there is one other indispensable element of the film that provides its beating heart.

“The ICE… is gonna BREAK!”

Casting Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith was a masterstroke. His wan, spectral appearance and unique vocal cadences are perfectly suited to the character. For the post-coma Johnny, there are no more things worth waiting for, only things that have passed him by. While Walken’s performance evokes a sense of loss that is both palpable and relentless, he also communicates Johnny’s innate decency. This generates more empathy than pity for Johnny and makes us want to see his story through to its end.

That end comes in the movie’s final act, when Johnny bumps into a glad-handing candidate Stillson at a rally. The ensuing vision reveals a future President Stillson as an unhinged tyrant, igniting a nuclear nightmare. The traditional read on the movie puts Johnny’s crossroads decision whether or not to attempt to stop Stillson as the pivot point of the film. However, over the last four years a growing fascination with the Stillson subplot has given rise to a different perspective. We get stories like “How Stephen King Predicted Trump’s Rise Decades Ago,” “Welcome to the Trump Zone,” and “35 Years Later, The Dead Zone’s Political Parable is More Powerful Than Ever.” It has been suggested, in other words, that the real significance of The Dead Zone is wrapped up in Greg Stillson’s similarities to the recently departed occupant of the White House.

There are a few problems with this approach. The first is that it confuses a plot device with a theme. If Greg Stillson had been a domestic terrorist mastermind instead of a politician, the film’s statement would remain unchanged. Stillson exists because the story reaches a point where King needs something to provide a jolt for Johnny to end his self-imposed isolation and consider extreme violence to ward off a potential catastrophe.

Second, the value of a novel / movie does not necessarily increase if it reflects real life events. Another King work, The Stand, is a case in point. It depicts a battle between the forces of good and evil after most of the world’s population has succumbed to a devastating pandemic (another plot device). It appeared as a mini-series in 1994, and there is a new iteration in release now. We can’t say that the 2021 version is qualitatively better because it exists in the time of Covid-19. I concede that some may engage more readily with The Stand or The Dead Zone if it connects with their lived experiences, but the link between the staying power of these stories and their timeliness is tenuous at best.

Finally, my biggest issue with this reductionist view of The Dead Zone is that it misses entirely what King and Cronenberg have achieved.

“I am interested in the mystery of what we are, and what we are capable of doing.”

 Stephen King interview, Fresh Air / NPR, 8 April 2020

This comment from King illuminates the film’s thematic objective. Throughout the movie, Johnny resists his visions because they only bring him frustration, rejection, or physical pain. Unlike Charlie in Firestarter or Carrie White, Johnny can’t immolate an army regiment or electrocute the senior class. This thing that he’s got is the furthest thing from a super power. Johnny Smith saves the little girl from the fire, identifies the Castle Rock Killer, and ultimately stops Greg Stillson because his inherent goodness compels him to do so.

King’s story disabuses us of the notion that we are in charge of our destinies. We can’t control the potentially soul-crushing events that life throws at us. Sadly, new pandemics, demagogues, and other calamities will likely occur in the future. The Dead Zone is saying that what matters is our response to these challenges. Johnny Smith is us, but somehow he has the grace to rise above his personal losses to be a better version of us. The Dead Zone suggests that our ability to make personal choices is of far greater consequence than the power of fate. It artfully presents an enduring idea whose potency and relevance will be undiminished by the passage of time.

About Rich Dishman – My fascination with horror began with a way inappropriately aged viewing of the Universal Frankenstein. It was an experience so terrifying yet so exhilarating that I have spent the rest of my movie going life trying to top it. I began writing movie reviews for in 2010. Since its retirement in 2012, I have been a regular contributor at the multi-media British site, Contains Moderate Peril, and more recently for the horror website Ravenous Monster. I have a day job, but I am also a professional musician (well, drummer). I want to start a project to perform a repertoire consisting exclusively of soundtrack music from horror and sci-fi films. Is that weird? I live with my wonderful wife and two cats. They see and they know that I “wouldn’t even harm a fly.” Rich Dishman has previously written for Horror Homeroom on Val Lewton and Oz Perkins.

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