Februrary 21, 2013

The Dead Zone (1983)
Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, and Martin Sheen

Needs more cowbell

Comments:   Over the years, one of the questions that people love to ask Stephen King in interviews is what is his favorite one of his books.  And at least up until the 2000's (I haven't seen if he has changed his answer recently), Stephen King would always say the same thing.  For about twenty years, if anyone ever asked him, he would always say that his favorite one of his books was The Dead Zone.

Now I have been a fan of The Dead Zone for a long time too.  This is one of those books that I have recommended to countless people over the years.  In fact if you asked me what I thought was the most underrated Stephen King book, or which one I would recommend that people start with if they are a first time Stephen King reader, this is almost always the one that I will pick.  I would say either start with the Dead Zone or Different Seasons.

Hates plants with googly eyes

But here is the funny thing.  If the Dead Zone book is underrated, then the Dead Zone movie is even MORE underrated.  Did you know that Stephen King also considers this to be one of the best adaptations of his books?  I actually have a book somewhere called "Stephen King at the Movies" that was written in 1990 or so.  In it, King talks about all the movies that have made out of his stories.  He talks about which ones were good (Stand By Me and Carrie), he talks about which ones sucked (Children of the Corn and Maximum Overdrive).  He talks about which ones are good but he hates anyway (The Shining).  And then at some point in the book the question is asked, well which one does he think is the best?

Well he won't flat out say which one is his favorite.  But you can guess which one he points out.  He mentions that The Dead Zone was really well done.

Yet here is the kicker.  This is the Stephen King movie that nobody ever ever EVER ever talks about.

I can't tell you how many friends I know who love Stephen King stories.  And I can't tell you how few of them have ever actually sat down and watched The Dead Zone.  In fact when I tell them about it and I say they should watch it, this is the answer that I usually get:  "Nah, I don't want to see a Christopher Walken movie."

And you see, that is the problem.  Christopher Walken is such a bizarre comic icon now, he has made such a name for himself on Saturday Night Live and in weird demented movies and TV appearances over the past twenty five years, that a lot of people don't seem to realize that he was a pretty good actor once.  That's right, at one point in his career Christopher Walken was considered normal enough to play a character named "John Smith."  

John Smith.  One of Stephen King's greatest creations.  John Smith, the anonymous everyman.

I know this will sound bizarre to anyone under the age of 30, but in 1983, if you were making a movie about the most anonymous normal English teacher in America, you could theoretically cast Christopher Walken to play him.  And nobody would even think twice about it.

Nice hair

Like I said, The Dead Zone is the story of a high school English teacher from Maine named John Smith.  He is just your typical ordinary English teacher.  He reads books. He teaches about Poe.  And really, that is about all that he does.  There isn't a single quirk or a little tiny detail that is odd about him.  He reads books, he teaches classes, he is nice to his parents, and he takes his girlfriend to the county fair.  

That is about the height of excitement in the life of John Smith.

Johnny and his girlfriend at the fair

Well one night, on the way home from his girlfriend's house, Johnny is in a terrible traffic accident.  A tanker truck overturns on a country road and it slams into his car.  And even though he is lucky and he avoids death, Johnny is injured so badly that he falls into a coma.

He stays in that coma for a very long time

When Johnny awakens, he finds that nearly a decade has passed.  He has no memory of the world moving on without him, but that is exactly what has happened while he was asleep.  His girlfriend is married to somebody else, his teaching career is over, his parents have practically already held his funeral.  Basically everything that he had in his life ten years ago is now gone.  

Because of the coma, he wakes up and now he is just a lonely old outcast in a hospital bed.

Sad Johnny

But it turns out that Johnny isn't quite the same.  

Oh, he feels the same.  And he mostly looks the same.  But something has changed about him.  The impact with the tanker truck has done something to his brain.  Because the minute Johnny wakes up, and the minute he touches somebody on the hand, he can now instantly see what is going to happen to them in the future.

Some part of his brain was damaged in the accident, and now he is officially a psychic.

Johnny touches his nurse's hand and he can see that her little girl is about to die in a fire

Well the minute that word gets out that Johnny is a psychic and that he can see the future, the whole world comes running to him to see if he can help them.  Parents come sobbing, asking for help in finding their missing children.  People who play the lottery want him to tell them the winning numbers.  Detectives who are investigating unsolved crimes come to him looking for help.  And meanwhile Johnny is just sitting here thinking, wait a minute, you guys think this is a gift?  I am never going to be normal now.  This is a curse.  From this day on people are always going to treat me like I am a freak.

Even though he doesn't want it, Johnny gets a jolt of information any time he touches somebody's hand

People tell him that what he has is a gift.  They tell him that God has chosen him to have a special purpose.  And meanwhile all Johnny wants is to be normal again and to have his old life back.

Most of the movie is made up of people asking for Johnny's help.  And in most cases he flat out refuses.  He doesn't want to be a carnival freak.  He doesn't want to be any sort of a celebrity.  He just wants to be a recluse and to be left alone.

But then... well... that is where we get the twist that makes the Dead Zone one of my favorite Stephen King stories.

Assemblyman Greg Stillson

Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen) is a charismatic young State Assemblyman from New England.  And he is running for Senate.  And he is awfully popular, especially with females.  In fact, in the news, a lot of people are comparing him to a young John F. Kennedy.  

Greg Stillson

Greg Stillson is so beloved, in fact, that political experts are predicting that in ten years he is going to be in the White House.  At the moment he is the single most charismatic and young and popular politician in North America.  Everyone loves him.

It is almost destiny that he is going to be the President some day.

Except for one catch.  He meets Johnny.

One day, Johnny Smith is wandering around a political rally in Maine, and he meets Greg Stillson.  And on a whim, he decides to walk over and meet this guy who everyone is nuts about.  And he shakes his hand.

And in that one split second, he can instantly see the future.

Johnny sees that when this man becomes President one day, he is going to start a nuclear war.  

Lots of people are going to die because of him.

He is going to kill millions.

Johnny sees the future of Assemblyman Greg Stillson

And right there, Johnny now knows what the purpose of his so called "gift" is.  God has given him precognition for a reason.  He has been placed on this Earth so that he can prevent a nuclear war.

And the rest of the movie is now officially a moral quandary.  Does John Smith have an ethical obligation to murder this man?  Is he obligated by what he knows to take a gun and go to a Greg Stillson rally and assassinate the guy?

In other words, what if you had the chance to take out Hitler ten years before he wiped out half the Jews in Europe?  

What if you knew something about the future that nobody else did?  And what if you knew that you would die in the process, and that everyone would think you were crazy even if you were successful?

Do you think you could go through with it?

Knowing the future is not always a fun thing

The Dead Zone is one of those stories that is completely unlike any other Stephen King story.  Because it is not a horror story.  If anything it is more of a science fiction story.  It is also a story about ethics.  It is one of those books (and movies) that really will make you think about what you would do if you were in Johnny's shoes.

And again, the movie is almost EXACTLY like the book.  In fact some would say this is the most faithful representation of a Stephen King book that has ever been made.

Yet nobody talks about the book.  And nobody ever talks about the movie.  And both of them are really good.  

I don't understand it.

Oh, and also... scissors!

The Dead Zone received a slight renaissance in popularity in the 2000's when it was made into a TV series on the USA Network.  I have never actually seen the TV series, but I hear it is quite good.  But still, this movie has been sitting out there at video stores for more than 30 years, and it is widely considered one of the better Stephen King movies.  And Christopher Walken is actually quite good in it.  This is one of those rare movies you can argue is an exception when people claim that "Stephen King movies all suck."

The Dead Zone is the Stephen King masterpiece that doesn't get even one-twentieth the adulation that something like The Shining gets, and this travesty sort of needs to stop right now.  Remember, this is Stephen King's favorite book.  This is one of Stephen King's favorite movies.  This movie has Martin Sheen saying "I can see that I am going to be president one day!" years before he actually WAS President on The West Wing.

This movie has Christopher Walken back when he was still considered quite normal.

That all has to count for something.  Doesn't it?

Ladies, if your boyfriend is ever in a coma, please don't leave him

By the way, before I sign off, here is a quick little trivia note you will enjoy.

Christopher Walken was NOT the first choice to play John Smith.  At least, not if you asked Stephen King.  Although it wasn't because Walken was "too weird" or because he was "too bizarre".  Or because he "hid Butch's gold watch up his ass for all those years."  No, the only criticism they had about Walken at the time was that he was "too detached" and they didn't think he would be empathetic enough for the audience to care about him.

And also, because of that haircut

Stephen King's first choice to play John Smith (which was vetoed by the studio) was Bill Murray.

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about The Dead Zone:

Note to film studios: This is how King movies should be made. - 15 August 1998
Definitely one of the best movie adaptations of a Stephen King novel, along with Kubrick's The Shining and DePalma's Carrie. King himself considers this one of the best, for the same reason I do... it uses cinematic conventions to actually improve aspects of the original story, a rarity when it comes to filming books. Canadian director David Cronenberg understates the story, and except for one spectacular suicide scene refrains from his usual visceral horror approach to storytelling. He captures the same small-town tone of King's writing, and the great Christopher Walken delivers an amazing acting job as the tortured John Smith, a school teacher who's aspirations are robbed from him in a car accident that sends him into a coma for five years. He awakes to find his legs crippled, his fiancÚ married to another man and his job long gone.

But he has received something in return...a psychic bond with whoever he touches. Also notable is Martin Sheen, who's performance as lunatic politician Greg Stillson is one of the best of his career. Topping it all off is a fantastic climax that wraps up the entire story in even better fashion that the original novel. No matter if you're a fan of King or Cronenberg, check out this rare beast, a movie that almost outdoes its literary equivalent.

Chris Walken's finest performance - 20 June 1999
"The Dead Zone" is a movie that I would recommend almost above any other. A simple yet involving plot is made positively intense thanks to an awesome performance by Christopher Walken, plus fine supporting work from Martin Sheen and Brooke Adams. A lovely original symphonic score (unavailable, as far as I'm aware) and melancholic winter scenery, colour this film's psyche. David Cronenburg's direction is deftly accomplished; many frames being truly beautiful. Watch for the camera shot during John's bus ride late in the film - it's autumnal and exquisite. Chris Walken's stunning dialogue technique has never been displayed as finely as here.Walken fans must wish he had more roles in which he could display sensitivity and humanity, as in "The Dead Zone".  His speech rhythm reminds me somewhat of Anthony Hopkins in "The Elephant Man" (Lynch). Really,it's one of the great cinematic performances. Try to ensure you see the uncut version. There is a fairly graphic suicide scene that is often missing from TV airings, which is criminal since it adds such gravity to the storyline. Like all great art, this film has never really left me. The character John Smith is so noble, one can't help but be moved by his tale.  Everything you need to know about tragedy: it's here. You must see this film.

As far as King adaptations go, this one is ace - 11 March 2005
"The Dead Zone" is one of the few King novels turned into really good movies. It is very true to the book in its first two thirds and integrates some nice new elements in the last. Making Sarah a supporter of Greg Stillson was a brilliant idea that adds a bit more intensity to the finale. Some details of the novel are only hinted at or cut out entirely (Johnny's mother's religious delusion, his first accident on the ice, the Wheel Of Fortune, etc), but compromises have to be made when turning a book with 500 pages into a feature length movie and I think the right editing choices have been made.

"The Dead Zone" is not only an overlooked gem when it comes to Stephen King adaptations, it's also one of Cronenberg's best directing jobs, not very typical of his work, but pretty timeless. Sure, nowadays the accident at the beginning, Johnny's visions and the shootout at the end would be made more gripping and spectacular, but those minor flaws don't really make the movie seem all that dated.

Of course, having read the book I enjoyed the movie as a portrayal of events I had pictured in my mind before. I don't know, if "The Dead Zone" is thrilling to first time viewers, too, since the plot leaps a little, being a series of episodes rather than one continuous story. After all, I believe that Christopher Walken's performance is strong enough to carry most of the story and make you care about this character and his fate. In fact, all the roles have been cast pretty accurately to my personal imagination.

This movie is an artifact of the times when Hollywood's most important directors would fight for the opportunity to adapt one of Stephen King's novels. It's every bit as enjoyable as "The Shining" as a movie, it's just based on an inferior model. Still, "The Dead Zone" can be recommended to King fans as well as those who are indifferent to his work.

Relatively gore-free but very well-made Stephen King adaptation. - 30 June 2004
One of the unwritten laws of the movies is that Stephen King books are nearly always disappointing when transferred to the big screen. One film which doesn't fit that rule is The Dead Zone. In the hands of David Cronenberg, you may expect this to be a gore-filled affair, but it is actually a very well-made, subtle film which emphasises the psychological sense of fear rather than settling for blood-spattered mayhem. There isn't a moment in the film that will make you jump out of your seat, but it is still an effectively scary film because it plays on your mind.

Normal, down-to-earth everyman Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is involved in a terrible car crash which leaves him comatose. Four years later, he miraculously awakens. To begin with, he is devastated to learn that his girlfriend has moved on, marrying and starting a family with another man. But soon he realises that this is the least of his problems. He soon discovers that the accident has left him with remarkable powers, which enable him to see into people's futures just by touching their hand. And Johnny is in for one hell of a nasty shock when he shakes hands with potential senator Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) at a political rally....

An intelligently paced and very well-acted film, The Dead Zone is also full of unpredictable plot developments. Walken elicits great sympathy as the normal guy who rapidly learns that his new gift is actually a curse, and there are fabulous supporting performances from Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Brooke Adams and the terrifying Martin Sheen. The film has several tremendous moments, but the climax in particular builds to an emotional crescendo. The premise of The Dead Zone is probably rather silly if you stop to think about it, but other than that it is a most impressive film - and still ranks as one of, if not THE, best adaptation of a Stephen King story so far.

A Quaint Masterpiece - 9 February 2005
One of the small triumphs of 80's Sci-Fi, this film has everything a film fan could want. Strong performances from Walken and Sheen, in-captivating cinematography not to mention a non-overindulgent take on an excellent book which its 80's counterparts had in abundance. Who can forget the shambles that was Bonfire of the Vanities.

In this case, having read both the book and seen the film, the differences between the two are negligible in my opinion. Although it was reported that there were several attempts at writing a screenplay due to differences between Cronenberg, Stephen King and others, the end product isn't too far from the theme and subject of the story itself.

Walken was one of the few actors of this time that could envisage the pain and torture of having such a gift as second sight. The line he delivers - "You know what God did for me.." while speaking to Skerrit who comments that God has seen fit to bless him with this gift shows Walken's true acting prowess. You can taste his bitterness and depression through this line alone. One cannot underrate this job for Walken as the book is far more descriptive and indulgent into the spells which Johnny Smith goes through as well as the roller-coaster that is his emotions.

With the sub-plots in full swing such as tutoring the young boy, the castle rock killer and the eventual showdown with the soon to be president Sheen, the film flows in a nice even pace. This is interspersed with the delightful performance of Herbert Lom.

If you haven't already seen this, you are in for a treat. It is far superior to other similar films such as Unbreakable.

Vintage Walken & King; kudos to Croneberg - 6 March 2003
David Cronenberg directed this exceptional adaptation of Stephen King's successful chilling novel about sad-eyed school teacher Johnny Smith (eerily personified by the always wonderful Walken) who after hurtled into a coma from a car accident, resurrects to find himself with clairvoyant powers by the simple touch with another human being. Effectively creepy at times and nice use of snow engulfed Maine as its setting. One of Walken's uncanniest performances and one of his own personal faves (which he lampooned later to much hilarity on a 'Saturday Night Live' skit ).

* My favorite trivia about The Dead Zone:

* The Dead Zone was the first of several Stephen King novels and short stories that took place in the small town of Castle Rock. Others include Stand by Me, Cujo, The Dark Half, and Needful Things.

* Cronenberg fired a .357 Magnum loaded with blanks just off camera to make Smith's flinches seem more involuntary; this was Christopher Walken's own idea.

* Before the accident, Johnny instructs his class to read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". Christopher Walken would later go on to appear in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.

* David Cronenberg wanted to change the name of Christopher Walken's character: "I'd never name someone 'Johnny Smith'", he quipped, but in the end it was left as is. The book does specifically mention how it sounds like a fake name.

* This film (and Stephen King's novel) are both loosely based upon the life of famous psychic Peter Hurkos. Hurkos claimed to have acquired his alleged powers after falling off a ladder and hitting his head.

* Director David Cronenberg had to re-shoot the scene in which John Smith has his first premonition. It showed a little girl's room burning and a small E.T. doll could be seen on one of the shelves. The scene had to be re-shot when Universal Pictures threatened to sue.

* Martin Sheen's character says he has had a vision that he will be the President of the United States. Sheen went on to play the President of the United States in the mini series Kennedy and in The West Wing.

* The "sweat" on Christopher Walken's face during the "burning bedroom" sequence was in fact a flame-retardant chemical that had been sprayed onto him. The resulting effect, which hadn't been anticipated, looked surprisingly dramatic on film.

* Bill Murray was Stephen King's first choice to play John Smith

The Dead Zone at the IMDB

The Dead Zone at Wikipedia

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