FANGO Flashback: “THE DEAD ZONE” (1983)Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
When Cronenberg comes up in discussion among horror fans, THE DEAD ZONE doesn’t get quite as much attention as Cronenberg’s more esoteric and bizarre offerings. In fact, THE DEAD ZONE is almost a perpetually overlooked title among the director’s impressive oeuvre, despite being as scary as any film the Canadian Master of Horror has ever crafted. Even more to his credit, Cronenberg crafted something truly unsettling and eerie while effectively visualizing the voice of Stephen King, who, at the time, was a bona fide horror powerhouse with a legion of loyal fans.
For those unfamiliar, THE DEAD ZONE follows teacher Johnny Smith, who falls into a coma following a tragic automobile accident. When Smith awakens years later, not only is his life in disarray but he has acquired the supernatural power of foresight via touch, preventing the death of a nurse’s child while locating his doctor’s long-lost mother. Soon, Smith becomes a notable local figure, and soon uses his gift to better the world despite the psychological and physical toll the power takes on him.
Perhaps the reason THE DEAD ZONE never gets its due credit is because how the film interprets the horror and supernatural elements at hand. There’s no denying that THE DEAD ZONE is a horror film, especially considering the film’s dark second act in which our protagonist uses his new power to hunt a serial killer. But the fact that the supernatural elements that are so integral to the story and yet never feel as if they’re exploited for stylistic effect is a bold choice on Cronenberg’s part as a filmmaker, and would understandably provide fright fans with a reason to forget how decidedly in the genre that THE DEAD ZONE resides.
Furthermore, THE DEAD ZONE brings its scariest scenes at the midway point of the film, and never quite compromises King’s story even if it’s subverting his intended narrative structure. In that sense, THE DEAD ZONE is just as much of a horror as it is a drama, a thriller and a tragedy of the highest order, with the supernatural aspect applied as fuel to elevate the stakes of the other genres. And rather than taking King’s story as a starting point to something much more horror-oriented, as Kubrick did with THE SHINING, Cronenberg actually does the opposite and stays relatively faithful to King’s intended story arc and instead applies his unique cinematic touch to the proceedings.
To that point, Cronenberg finds a way to bleed his vision organically into King’s voice via his ambitious and confident direction, unafraid to explore the scope of the tale while always reeling it back into intimacy. Even when Cronenberg places Johnny Smith in a burning bedroom, the scene feels fantastical in nature but always ties back to the human element in the corresponding scene in the hospital. And for a filmmaker who roots his efforts so much in the critical, satirical and nightmarish, it’s almost as if King’s material helps Cronenberg anchor himself in the grounded, human world in which THE DEAD ZONE exists.
But Cronenberg isn’t the only one responsible for how effective THE DEAD ZONE is, even if his personal touch is apparent in almost every facet of production. Mark Irwin’s cinematography is effortlessly entrancing while simultaneously patient, which helps seamlessly blend the scariest sequences in with the simplistic drama. The same can be said of Jeffrey Boam’s unnerving screenplay and Michael Kamen’s rather brilliant score, punctuating the emotional and eerie in equally effective fashion. And, of course, there’s the amazing performances on display, all of whom are elevated by Christopher Walken in a unfortunately rare and ultimately powerful performance that ranks as one of the best in both King and Cronenberg’s respective histories.