“In his mind he has the power to see the future / In his hands he has the power to change it” – The Dead Zone movie poster.
Stephen King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone was adapted for a movie of the same name released in 1983. The David Cronenberg-directed film now has a deluxe Collector’s Edition released by Scream Factory on Blu-ray. The film looks as fresh as it ever did with a new scan from the original negative and it’s loaded with bonus features worthy of a major award-winning release. Extras are nice and everything but how does a 38-year-old film hold up today?
The past five years have done their best to prove Stephen King of the 1970s as the Nostradamus of his time. His earlier novel The Stand appeared to play out through 2020 and a better part of 2021. But Captain Trips didn’t have a vaccine and luckily we didn’t have a Trashcan Man. The more salient prognostication might be the inner conflict of Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) after shaking hands with Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) and seeing the future Trump-ish presidency for the character. That’s the biggest focus of the final third of the film but also probably the one thing that sets it apart from other thrillers of its day.
While not being the length of books that King would become synonymous with, the story of school teacher Johnny Smith is a story of four distinct beats. Johnny’s life and hint at his “talent” is summarized in a night at the carnival with his fiancee ending in the car accident that puts him in a coma. There should be the rise of the “hero” as Johnny saves some children that is paralleled against the rise of politician Stillson. There is the solving of the serial killer case with Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) that is his pinnacle. Later when he is disgraced after all the attention given him after the Dodd murder case, he meets Stillson that leads to the thrilling conclusion.
David Cronenberg came to this film right after The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome. It is a story written by an author in King that at the time was known as strictly a horror writer with Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining. This is rightly called a thriller or even at its heart, a science fiction story. This movie was marketed in the “dead zone” of area between horror and thriller and as a film it tries very hard to play up the supernatural elements. Those are the very few things that don’t work. The pacing becomes off as more time is spent on Johnny than on the rise of Stillson. I’m going to avoid comparisons to the book and the television series because they are different mediums. Cronenberg is working with a stellar cast and this is a compelling film.
The extras are informative and interesting. There are four (yes that’s not a typo, four!) new commentaries, seven short films centered around the different aspects of making the film and the usual trailers and TV spots. It’s overkill if you don’t enjoy the film but I found them to be good for filling in gaps that I missed while watching the film.
You are remiss to review this film in 2021 without mentioning how it relates to the Trump era. King had a pretty accurate vision in the days of Jimmy Carter as to what a Trump presidency might have looked like. In many ways, he was probably channeling the rise of Ronald Reagan, but this cult of personality figure fits today’s politics. What is better about the Stillson rise as opposed to the Trump journey (from a narrative position) is the slow move from local businessman to a quick move up each rung of the political ladder. If nothing else, the “what if?” of the film is another layer seen through the lens of today. If you have the power to change the future, would you? Horror films are often tethered to the past, but good science fiction like this always looks forward.