Paramount // 1983 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // October 2nd, 2000
"Bless me"? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless...Blessed me?! God's been a real sport to me!
From 1983 comes The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg's moody adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. For my money, this movie is easily the best of all King horror movies and also stands as one of Cronenberg's finest films.
Paramount once again comes through on the video and sound end of things but as is also usually the case from the studio, the disc is devoid of any kind of supplemental content. Paramount, can you say "commentary track"?
School Teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) has just kissed his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) goodnight and speeds off into the rainy night in his trusty old VW bug. Feeling good about life and with very few cares in the world, Johnny's life takes a cruel turn when he is involved in a serious auto accident, an accident that leaves him in a coma for five years.
Finally awake and finding himself under the care of Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), Johnny finds much has changed around him as well as within him. Smith finds that he has to cope with many things. His girlfriend Sarah is now married and has a child, Johnny's body will never be what it once was, and he also discovers that he has the ability to see into people's future as well as their past.
It is this new ability that lets Johnny see that his nurse's house is on fire, in the process his second sight saves the woman's young daughter.
Word of his "gift" gets out and it is this ability that causes the town's sheriff (Tom Skerritt), to contact Smith. Sheriff Bannerman needs his help in tracking down a serial killer that has been stalking the town all during Johnny's long and dark sleep.
It is an ability that will allow Johnny to see the age of the apocalypse when he touches the hand of a politician named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen). It is an ability that will force Johnny to make a fateful choice. A choice that will pit his life against the life of billions. A choice that will mean either the continuation of mankind or an eternal trip for the world into the deadest of all zones.
Looking at the film history of Stephen King adaptations, The Dead Zone holds its head up high above the rest. Perhaps because the film deals more with sadness and the terror that comes from loss than it does with pure blood and guts shock value, the film carries an unusual power. With its lonely vistas the film plays more like an Andrew Wyeth painting that has been brought to life than it does a horror shocker from the modern master of terror.
It also helps that David Cronenberg is directing. If you look at the man's body of work you will find one recurrent theme that runs throughout most of his films and that is the love story. Bizarre, otherworldly love stories to be sure, but still love stories. From the love affair between the twins in Dead Ringers to the erotically charged lust of Crash to the most heart breaking of all affairs in The Fly, it is a topic that holds an obvious fascination for the director and it is an angle on display here in The Dead Zone as well.
This is also one of the most restrained of Cronenberg movies in terms of violence and gore. The movie operates much more as a suspense thriller than it does as a horror movie. There are chills and a couple of jolts to be sure but for the most part the film's chills grow out of situations and an ever-growing affection for the movie's protagonist.
Cronenberg was also quite fortunate to have the screenplay of the late and greatly missed Jeffrey Boam (Innerspace, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) at his disposal. Boam always had a great ear for the way people speak and he wisely made the focus of film become Johnny's journey, his love, his gift, his pain and his loss. Characters that are often reduced to stereotype in this genre of film are real, living and breathing people here. It is an approach that gains steam as the movie moves forward and gives the film's climax a powerful sense of the inevitable.
There are movies that define certain performers and with The Dead Zone, it is my feeling that Christopher Walken truly came into his own. He certainly gained notoriety from his outstanding work in such early roles in The Deer Hunter and The Dogs of War but here is where he showed he could really carry a film as the lead. He turns in a sweet, earnest performance that in the end proves to be heart breaking. He carries every moment of pain, happiness, fear and anger clearly on his face and the way he carries his body. His performances may have grown more eccentric over the years but here he gives his most heartfelt and honest work on film. In doing so he achieved the most difficult of all acting feats, he made it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role and he gave The Dead Zone its soul.
In addition to the fine work from Walken, The Dead Zone also boasts fine work from Brooke Adams (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Days of Heaven) as Johnny's former love, Sarah. Tom Skerritt (Alien, Top Gun) is solid as the town's sheriff, and Anthony Zerbe (Star Trek: Insurrection, License To Kill) is also very good as the millionaire Roger Stuart.
It would also be impossible to discus The Dead Zone without mentioning the work of Martin Sheen (Spawn, The American President) as presidential hopeful Greg Stillson. In a word, he gives a performance that is simply bonechilling. The man is pure ambition and true evil. The film's plot offers him as the world's worst possible fear, a true psychotic in the White House, the antichrist with his finger on a nuclear arsenal capable of eliminating all life on earth. It is some his best work onscreen and his role offers great balance to the kindness of Walken's character.
Presented on home video for the first time in widescreen, Paramount has given The Dead Zone a new anamorphic transfer that maintains the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Overall it is a very strong picture. Blacks and shadow possess great detail, and they also have a deep clarity that rarely shows any kind of shimmer or pixel breakup.
Flesh tones are warm while appearing quite natural and lifelike. If the picture has any kind of flaw it would be that colors appear to be rather muted, as if the image itself were undersaturated. There are also some problems with the source material. There is a considerable amount of film grain present and the picture has more than a few instances of distortions such as specks and dirt. Still for a film that is almost twenty years old, it is more than acceptable and should not hold anyone back from picking up the disc.
On the sound front, the disc offers the movie in French Mono, English 2.0 Surround and a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The 5.1 is pleasant and easy to listen to. There is great warmth to the soundscape and while it will hardly give your rear surrounds a workout, everything is heard to good effect. The movie is dialogue driven and the mix does a good job of making everything easy to understand, while also offering the listener a chance to appreciate the music of composer Michael Kamen, X-Men, Brazil, in one of his better screen efforts.
Paramount lists the disc's Special Features as being English Subtitles, Interactive Menus, Scene Selection and Theatrical Trailer. In other words, the disc is about as bare bones as anyone is likely to find.
The Dead Zone does have a couple of faults. First off, the role of Johnny's mother is written as a Bible thumping born again Christian who sees her son's gift as a sign from the Lord. It is her fervent belief that ends up causing her to have a stroke and die. It is screenwriter Jeffrey Boam's only misstep and her role caused me a couple of slight eyerolls. Fortunately for the film, her onscreen death is pretty early and it does not get in the way of the movie building towards its second half.
The movie also offers one bad performance and that is Herbert Lom (Hopscotch, A Shot in the Dark) as Johnny's doctor, Sam Weizak. Never an actor to employ a degree of subtlety, Lom is more like a bull in a china shop. His work sticks out in a movie like The Dead Zone because it is in such a direct contrast to everything else in the production. His concern is forced, his fear comes off as obvious and his anger is nothing more than stage bluster. He was one of those bad actors who always managed to stay busy and for the life of me, I could never figure out why.
As for the DVD itself...well I will say that of late it appears that Paramount is getting better in how it treats its movies. Unfortunately, with The Dead Zone it is bare bones all the way. Director Cronenberg has recorded several commentary tracks in the past and the absence of one here is a glaring fault. It would have been great to hear both Cronenberg and Stephen King on the same track. At the very least, some kind of substantial retrospective documentary would seem to be a must. Alas, it was not to be.
I can only hope that things get better and perhaps one day Paramount will revisit The Dead Zone with the features it so richly deserves.
The Dead Zone is a very good movie. Fans of the author, Stephen King and horror genre fans in general should be most pleased by its appearance. I can also see the movie appealing to fans of well-made and acted suspense dramas. The presence of Mr. King and Mr. Cronenberg should not scare off the non-horror fan. This film is quite effective and very memorable.
As a disc, I feel less warmth. The picture is solid, if slightly flawed, and the sound is effective. Still the glaring lack of extras is a major factor and at a retail price of around 30 dollars, it is difficult to recommend as a purchase.
Considering everything stated above, The Dead Zone falls into the must rent category. If, however you find the disc greatly reduced or used, pick it up with confidence.
Perhaps it is time that Paramount looked at the way its pricing structure is set up. Considering the quality and the amount of extra content other studios offer, think New Line or Columbia, not to mention the cost of what those others charge, it is time for Paramount to reduce the prices of its catalogue titles. If this disc were released at a price of $19.99, I would find it much easier to recommend as a purchase. I would also be much quicker to forgive the lack of supplemental material but at $29.99, the value to the consumer is simply not there.
The Dead Zone is acquitted of all charges. Paramount is sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service for its lack of extra material and for overcharging for what is there. Interactive menus, like another companies collectible booklets, are not, I repeat, are not a special feature.
Review content copyright © 2000 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer