Don’t let the fact that visible breath and frosty misery take priority over exploding heads and fetus-licking snow you. The Dead Zone, a completely transitional film, is one of Cronenberg’s most emotionally warm films, even at the same time as its devastating sense of topographical isolation remains at absolute zero. It’s the feeling of a headache on a cloudy Saturday afternoon (which makes it the perfect film for me to write about at this precise moment). And it stands shoulder to shoulder with all the other masterpieces in King’s first round of film adaptations—a line stretching from Brian De Palma’s Carrie to John Carpenter’s Christine—back when he let real directors tackle his work instead of campfire storytellers like Frank Darabont. Fittingly, it’s an adaptation of one-time horror novelist (that is to say, before he decided he’d rather be Norman Rockwell) Stephen King’s transitional book. His 1979 novel, which came off the heels of both The Stand and Night Shift (e.g. his longest and a collection of his shortest), was the first fully successful piece of legitimate literature in his career. Salem’s Lot showcases admirable geographic organization, and The Shining has miraculously black moments of terror (best line not used in Stanley Kubrick’s film, understandably: “You bitch. You killed me.”), but neither demonstrate a maturity of theme that would reward multiple readings.
The Dead Zone‘s biggest misstep is giving the protagonist the cipherous moniker Johnny Smith, which is considerably lower on the rung of obnoxious creative conceits—or, at least, is easier to ignore—than a hotel ghost party serving up a recalcitrant alcoholic phantom cocktails. (“Which, I ask you, which spirit is worse?”) The novel’s central whatzit, Johnny’s psychometric gift/curse, is subtly paralleled with his misspent life, and opened up a brief period in King’s work where horror of the extraordinary mingled with the more mundane horrors in a genuinely provocative manner (the other major novels being Cujo and Pet Sematary). The protagonist’s (and King’s) stripes as a tragic hero are earned because, in spite of the fact that he can see everything from every other time period in clear detail, he can’t attend to his own personal narrative. The four-and-a-half years he spends shut off to the world are excruciating, but his eventual awakening doesn’t particularly present much of an optimistic alternative. According to the movie (which probably reflects the book accurately, though I haven’t read it in awhile), the “dead zone” refers to the part of his psychic visions that Johnny can’t quite see, later surmising that it’s the part that he can thereby change. Actually, the real “dead zone” is Johnny’s own life, which he can neither see accurately, nor change.
Cronenberg’s ruthlessly linear adaptation stresses this miserable situation by, for starters, excising everything from the novel that smacked even faintly of sensationalistic occultism. Gone is the novel’s iconic “Wheel of Fortune” interlude, for instance. Instead of letting Johnny (played by Christopher Walken in a performance that, like Jeff Goldblum’s Fly and Jeremy Irons’s Dead Ringers, represents the most genuine performance from a typically overly-careful thesp) have his moment in local fame and fortune, Cronenberg instead stages his carnival date with Sarah with about as much love blooming as there was in Carnival of Souls’ Saltair. The date, such that it is, ends when Johnny gets ill on the otherwise empty roller-coaster. They depart from the ride before the barker asks, “Did you have a good ride?” and Sarah pulls a stone-faced Johnny from their car and the two depart from the fair looking about as vivacious as Sydow and Ullman. Cronenberg’s film, taking a cue from King’s predominately serious novel, could be encapsulated in that moment. From its opening scenes of love deferred to its desolate final shot (also prefiguring The Fly), it’s lonely, reserved, and stripped totally of the kind of hocus pocus showmanship one has come to expect of psychic melodrama.