By the end of 1983, Hollywood was squarely in the Stephen King adaptation business. Of the eleven novels published under his name, six had been brought to the screen, three that year alone. Of those three – which fared about the same at the box office – Lewis Teague’s Cujo is the most gut-wrenching and John Carpenter’s Christine the most slickly produced, but David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, which was released just in time for Halloween, is the most emotionally resonant and attuned to the plight of its characters.
Foremost among them is English teacher Johnny Smith, played by Christopher Walken as slightly reserved and a touch eccentric, but otherwise perfectly ordinary. Extraordinary (and extrasensory) things are in store for him, though, after he takes his fiancée, fellow school teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams), on a date to an amusement park before it closes for the season and declines her offer to stay the night when he drops her off at home. (The way he shyly repeats “Better not” in response to her entreaties is positively heartbreaking, as is his follow-up, “Some things are worth waiting for.”) Johnny’s reluctance to rush things puts him on a rain-slicked road that night, when an unavoidable collision with a tanker truck plunges him into a coma for five years, one from which he wakes with the ability to see into the past or future of anyone he comes into physical contact with.
This power eventually drives Johnny into self-imposed isolation, but not before he uses it to save a nurse’s daughter from a fire and a lumber mill owner’s son from drowning. Then there’s the case of the notorious Castle Rock Killer, which he has to be talked into taking on. He also reconnects with Sarah, who got married in the interim and has a child. As the boy represents the one Johnny could have had with her had things turned out differently, their reunion is bittersweet (and, as she makes plain, can only be a one-time thing), but Johnny finds a new purpose when a chance encounter with populist senatorial candidate Greg Stillson prompts his most disturbing vision yet.
Along with Johnny and Sarah, Stillson is key to unlocking The Dead Zone’s themes and meanings. Chillingly portrayed by Martin Sheen with the maniacal gleam of a true believer, Stillson is willing to use any means, underhanded or otherwise, to fulfill his destiny – and take his first step onto the national stage since he ultimately has his eyes on the White House. “A real man of the people,” scoffs the mill owner while he and Johnny watch one of Stillson’s firebrand speeches on TV. “Jesus, what an act. Can’t they see through this guy?”
Among those who can’t see through Stillson are Sarah and her husband, who are out canvassing for him in the week before a rally taking place in the park across from Johnny’s house. It is there that Johnny and Stillson have their fateful handshake, but even before that, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam draws a direct parallel between them when Stillson declares he’s “had a vision that I am going to be President of the United States someday.” Once Johnny has seen what that could mean for the world, he knows he can no longer hide away from it.
For Cronenberg, The Dead Zone represented his boldest step in the direction of the mainstream. His sci-fi/horror hybrid Scanners topped the US box office in early 1981, and his follow-up, Videodrome, was his first film to be handled by a major studio (in that case, Universal Pictures). The next logical leap was a Stephen King adaptation for Dino De Laurentiis and producer Debra Hill (shepherding her first film after parting ways with John Carpenter), which was released by Paramount. This was far from uncharted territory for him, however. While the story is set in the States (in Maine and New Hampshire), Cronenberg was still able to film it on his home turf in Canada, and with most of his regular crew in place.
Cinematographer Mark Irwin, production designer Carol Spier, and film editor Ronald Sanders had been with him since 1979’s Fast Company and were trusted collaborators, which ensured a smooth production. The one absentee was composer Howard Shore, who with this one exception has scored all of Cronenberg’s films from The Brood on. In his place, De Laurentiis put forward Michael Kamen, an up-and-coming composer at the start of his own storied career. Kamen’s melancholy cues perfectly fit the mood of the film and helped enhance the doomed romance at its center, but Shore was squarely back in the fold for Cronenberg’s next project, The Fly, a fusion of Cronenberg’s cerebral sensibilities with another one of Hollywood’s favorite pastimes: the remake.