The Test of Time: The Dead Zone (1983)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen and Tom Skerritt

Stephen King is an industry. He’s had over 40 of his novels and stories made into features. 40! Damn that’s a lot. With that said, many of those films have been, well, less than spectacular, with B-quality, straight to video production value. However, some of his work has managed to fall into the right hands, attracting top-level talent to bring King’s stories to the mainstream. I’d wager that THE SHINING is everyone’s go-to King adaptation, but he has plenty of quality shit equally worthy to revisit. But whether it stands against the Test of Time is a different story.

Under the examination: THE DEAD ZONE.

Walken on the hunt.

THE STORY: English teacher Johnny Smith is living the good life. He loves his job, he reads “The Raven” to his students, and he has a cute fellow teacher girlfriend. He even digs roller coasters. Unluckily for him, a sleepy trucker allows his milk trailer to detach and Johnny runs into it, sending him into a five-year coma. When he wakes, his body is f*cked up, his girl is gone, and he’s having some weird ass dreams as he can now see people’s past, present, or future with a firm handshake. Things get even weirder with a chance encounter of up and coming politician Martin Sheen, who if elected as President, will kill us all.  

Oddest suicide ever put on film.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: David Cronenberg sure knows how to direct, and for a guy who usually goes extreme with gore and violence with movies like SCANNERS and THE FLY, he reigns in those tendencies for THE DEAD ZONE. Perhaps that came from studio pressure and a $10,000,000 budget (it was ‘83 remember). Perhaps he wanted to try something new.

No matter, because for a horror film, THE DEAD ZONE is quiet and subtle. Never in a rush. Never pushing anything too far. Cronenberg lets the characters and situations do all the work. Sure, bad things happen like having a serial killer on the loose, but most of it is suggested, not splattered (which is a nice change of pace). A lot of the violence (minus Walken getting shot a few times) comes specifically from his dreams, which I dig with the quick screeching violin and a Walken twitch. It’s sometimes creepier than the actual visions as some work better (like when the young boy and his hockey team falls through the ice) than others (the big one with Senator Sheen is a little too long and over cooked).

Angry fire Walken.

It seems obvious no one involved considered this a “horror” movie (minus a certain Sheen). If they did they left that usual mentality of either phoning it in or hamming it up in their trailer. Everyone brings quality to their performances, especially Walken who for all his weirdness, is perfect as Johnny Smith, a broken man robbed of everything but something that he never wanted. He looks tortured, confused, and uncomfortable. Everything the character should be. Once he starts his recovery process after his coma, the pain of losing everything seems absolute. He’s a lost man with a “gift” he doesn’t want. Hard not to feel for the guy.

With Tom Skerritt giving a fine Tom Skerritt performance (he’s the same in every movie) and Brooke Adams effective as the love interest, my favorite performance comes from Herbert Lom. Who? You might remember him from such roles as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, the always frustrated boss of Inspector Clouseau’s in the old PINK PANTHER series. Here, he’s the straight man as Smith’s caring doctor. He gives the character weight that probably wouldn’t exist with another actor in the role.  

Walken likes to work with his hands. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: One of the oddest things about revisiting THE DEAD ZONE some 30 years later comes from the star himself: Mr. Walken. His Johnny Smith role comes only five years after his Oscar-winning performance in THE DEER HUNTER, so obviously he was on top of his game. Watching the film now, however, makes it tough to escape all those Walken-isms. His quirks. His strangely matted hair. His speech patterns…which somehow are…already…strangely awkward.

Yes, it’s not fair to judge this performance against the man today, but he’s become a parody of himself with all those eccentric quirks amplified. I can only hear “Cowbell” or “I haven’t killed anyone…since 1984” or the whole Pulp Fiction monolog. That’s a shame too. Walken is fantastic here (as I stated above) and it sucks being distracted by what is to come. Martin Sheen brings the only performance that’s lackluster. He’s too over the top as the senator with nasty ambitions. The guy is so slimy that there’s no mystery to the character, no depth (though the baby grabbing scene is great).

Walken refuses all combs.

THE DEAD ZONE also suffers from trying to squeeze too much material into an hour and forty-minute runtime. Instead of a fluid storyline, we get moments, jumping in time and situations.  Not that it’s impossible to follow, but it seems we leap years without much transition. At the same time, the hunting of the serial killer in the first half seems a little anti-climactic. It exists as a way to develop the character, but it just ends and we move on to another adventure. I assume that’s faithful to the novel (haven’t read it), it has always played as if tacked on. Now it makes more sense why they decided to make a TV show with this one.

THE VERDICT: Out of all of the Stephen King movies, I think THE DEAD ZONE has been underrated, nearly forgotten under the shadow of THE SHINING or SHAWSHANK. But the flick remains a classic worthy of attention based on Cronenberg and Walken, even if it doesn’t deliver expected horror results.  



Walken doesn't need to listen. He's Walken.



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