Me And Lil’ Stevie
Get Lost In
THE DEAD ZONE (1983)
By Peter N. Dudar
(Exterior: Night. Establishing shot of a gazebo on a lakeside park. Camera slowly zooms toward the gazebo, where a grizzly scene is taking place. We see a young girl being charmed by a stranger into thinking she’s safe, until the stranger pulls her close and produces a set of medical scissors, which he handily uses to stab the girl repeatedly. While this is occurring, there is another figure huddled in the far corner of the gazebo watching all of this take place. As the camera zooms in, we see the figure is a man holding a ventriloquist dummy in the form of Master of Horror, Stephen King).
Lil’ Stevie: This is terrible! Somebody should do something about this!
Peter: Welcome, Constant Viewer, to another episode of ME AND LIL’ STEVIE. Today, we’ll be examining the 1983 David Cronenberg film, THE DEAD ZONE.
Lil’ Stevie: Which, I’ll have you know, is based on my 1979 novel…My FIRST book to reach #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Ka-Chow! Who’s your daddy?
Peter: It also happens to be the first Castle Rock story. Fans of Stephen King are already aware that Castle Rock is King’s signature fictional town; the Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of Everywhere, USA. Castle Rock and its characters transition over several other novels and short stories, including CUJO and NEEDFUL THINGS. But for now, let’s just focus on THE DEAD ZONE (1983), and the tragic tale of Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken, SLEEPY HOLLOW, 1999). Johnny is a school teacher in Castle Rock, living a perfect, happy life with his plans to marry his sweetheart, fellow schoolteacher Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, 1978). The movie begins with a glimpse of the young couple finishing off their Friday at school, only to slip off on a date to a local amusement park to ride the roller coaster.
Lil’ Stevie: What the hell is going on with Walken’s hair? He looks like the goofiest nerd you ever saw. What a Poindexter! Nobody on the planet would believe a hot chick like Brooke Adams would fall for him.
Peter: No argument here. Walken, fresh from THE DEER HUNTER (1978), is geeked out to the max with his goofy hair and glasses. But he and Sarah look very happy together and very much in love, which is exactly what King and Cronenberg want to convey. That’s the essence of this tragic tale…that fate can be so cruel to one man that everything he loves will be carried away, until the only thing he can tangibly call his own is his privacy, and he can’t even have that after his accident.
Lil’ Stevie: You mean he wets his pants?
(Peter hauls off and slaps Lil’ Stevie, forcing his wooden head to spin around comically on his body).
Lil’ Stevie: What’d you do THAT for?
Peter: You know very well what I meant by “accident.” Johnny and Sarah ride the roller coaster, and in the middle of the ride, he begins to feel a terrible pain in his head. His little joyride gives a touch of foreshadowing of what is to come. The ride is quickly over, and Johnny takes Sarah home. A rainstorm comes out of nowhere, just as he is kissing Sarah goodnight. Sarah offers to let him stay the night, wants him to not go home, but the unusually prudish Johnny tells her that “some things are worth waiting for” before kissing her one last time and heading back to his car…and driving off to meet his true destiny.
Lil’ Stevie: Time-out! In my novel, Johnny’s “destiny” actually begins way back during his childhood, when he fell and bumped his head on this frozen lake we’re standing beside, and had his first bout with extra-sensory perception. If you’ll recall the whole “Wheel of Fortune” incident at the beginning of the book…
Peter: Calm yourself, Lil’ Stevie. As always, we’re not concerned with the book. Your point is duly noted, but the movie is self-sustaining as it is. For us, Johnny’s “gift” is revealed after his accident while driving home in the rainstorm. An 18-wheeler, piloted by a sleepy driver, provides all the bad luck that destiny can throw at him. Johnny’s car crashes into it, and he is consequently plunged into a five-year coma. When he awakens five years later at the Weizak Clinic, he’s lost and confused. He’s baffled over the fact that there’s not a scratch on him, until his parents and his doctor, Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom, Chief Inspector Dreyfus from THE PINK PANTHER films) break the news to him that he was asleep for all that time.
Lil’ Stevie: And that everything he had is now gone. “Sarah’s turned her back on ya…she now cleaves to another man, a husband” his rabidly Christian mother informs him.
Peter: Yeah, what the hell is up with that? Nobody talks like that. It sounds so silly it’s almost irritating. That’s one of my bugaboos about this near-perfect movie: There’s some very bad dialogue in some of the scenes that left me wishing I could rewrite the screenplay. But it’s forgivable. What King is trying to convey is that Johnny’s mother is, indeed, a stern Christian woman.
Lil’ Stevie: It doesn’t quite build the same level of conflict I was trying to create in my novel. I was going for the whole “ESP as a blessing and a curse” vibe.
Peter: Again, it’s not necessary for the movie. We already get that through the tragedy of Johnny losing his love, and the psychic episodes he’s about to begin having, that leave him feeling like a part of him is dying. His first episode comes in the form of a vision he has when one of the nurses tries to comfort him. He sees her daughter huddled in the corner of her burning bedroom. The vision is striking, with Johnny stretched out in the little girl’s bed, watching the flames quickly consuming the house as the little girl screams out in terror. Windows break. The fishbowl boils over until it, too, shatters. Even the bed Johnny is lying in has flames growing off the blankets. It’s frightening and intense, and when it ends, Johnny screams at the nurse that “It’s not too late!” And, of course, the scene continues with the nurse pulling up outside her burning house, just as the firemen carry her daughter out, alive and badly frightened.
Lil’ Stevie: See? It’s a gift!
Peter: But it’s a gift that he doesn’t want. Or understands just yet. The REAL Stephen King is fascinated with psychic phenomena. We’ve already witnessed it with CARRIE (1976), and will see it again later in FIRESTARTER (1984). I think it’s the same appeal that many folks have with superhero stories; where the average person (or the “nobody”) has their world turned upside down with supernatural powers and abilities. THE DEAD ZONE almost feels like an allegory, only the hero never preoccupies himself with using this ability to better his own lot in life. Johnny draws a parallel between himself and Ichabod Crane from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” about being “a bachelor and in debt to no one, nobody troubled their head about him.” “It’s what I want,” Johnny concludes, meaning a life of anonymity.
Lil’ Stevie: And that’s the curse. Once people hear about his psychic episode, they all want his help for their own selfish, personal reasons.
Peter: And that includes Sheriff George Bannerman (Tom Skerritt, ALIEN, 1979). Sheriff Bannerman shows up at Johnny’s home and asks for help in tracking down the Castle Rock Killer, who has been murdering young girls during the five years he was in a coma. Which is what brings us here to this gazebo.
Lil’ Stevie: I could have very easily made this the focus of my novel. The Castle Rock Killer is both frightening and intriguing.
Peter: Yes, but its Johnny’s story. If you look at how this movie is presented, it doesn’t appear to be laid out in a three-act play. Rather, it’s broken down into smaller sub-chapters that run consecutively. Each of his “episodes” plays out like a self-contained television show. The Castle Rock Killer is only one small portion of the complete story. The same with Johnny’s episode with his student, Chris Stuart (Simon Craig, CONCRETE ANGELS, 1987), where he has a vision that Chris and some of his friends will fall through the ice and drown…a fate that Johnny slowly begins to realize he has the power to change.
Lil’ Stevie: And this ability is what gives this story a title. THE DEAD ZONE is the part of the psychic visions where the outcome is not certain. It’s a blind spot, and that blind spot is that place where Johnny can alter the outcome. The whole “Wheel of Fortune” thing I mentioned earlier isn’t just a carnival game that Johnny wins thanks to his psychic ability. It’s a metaphor for life. Johnny’s gift is that he can interfere with the “Wheel of Fortune” as it spins.
Peter: Okay, that’s kind of deep. But again, we don’t need the metaphor on the big screen. Whatever exposition we need comes through in the action parts of this movie. And in the moments of dialogue between Johnny and Dr. Weizak.
(From somewhere nearby, we hear the sound of a brass band playing patriotic songs. A crowd has gathered in what looks to be a political rally).
Peter: What the hell is going on over there?
Lil’ Stevie: That’s the final piece of this puzzle. Greg Stillson is running for the US Senate. Of course, Stillson (Martin Sheen, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, 2012) is just as deranged and dangerous as the Castle Rock Killer, only in a much grander fashion. By way of a huge coincidence, Dr. Weizak had his life hugely altered by the Holocaust, where he was separated from his mother during the raid of their European town by the Nazis. We all know the historical significance of Hitler’s reign. And through a vision Johnny has while shaking Stillson’s hand, we see that Stillson will one day achieve the office of the President of the United States, and will ultimately start a nuclear war.
Peter: Yeah, Sheen is terrific as the evil Greg Stillson. And when all the pieces of this puzzle are in place, we see Johnny finally realizing that what he thought was a curse is actually a gift. The morality behind Johnny’s character and all the struggles he’s endured since his accident are what make this story so effectively compelling. John Smith isn’t a superhero, but he is a hero for the everyday man, in the struggle of good versus evil. Where Cronenberg shines as a director is utilizing the psychological portions of the story to display how Johnny evolves as a human being. There are times when his psychic gift feels more like a terminal disease, or at least a terrible weight that Johnny has to carry. The emotional blows to his life, and the permanent limp that handicaps him, begin to seem trivial compared to the weight of having to decide if he should give up his own life to save the world. It’s just excellent storytelling.
Lil’ Stevie: And in the end, this still comes across as one of the most faithful adaptations of my work, even if they DID cut back and compress everything about Johnny’s childhood.
Peter: (Rolling eyes), I keep telling you…YOU didn’t write anything.
Lil’ Stevie: I knew you were going to say that.
Peter: Would you shut up so we can wrap this up?
Lil’ Stevie: I knew you were going to say that, too.
Peter: What makes this movie stand out in terms of good, successful adaptations is both the excellent screenplay by Jeffrey Boam and Cronenberg’s fiercely unyielding vision as a director. Cronenberg’s oeuvre as a filmmaker is nothing short of impeccable. SCANNERS (1981), VIDEODROME (1983), THE FLY (1986), and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005) are all amazing, disturbing films. What Cronenberg offers with THE DEAD ZONE really underscores the beauty beneath the tragedy. It is a story of unrequited love, and of ultimate sacrifice in the name of love. And it’s accomplished in bursts of violence and darkness and death. I loved this movie, and would put it in my Top 5 Stephen King adaptations.
Lil’ Stevie: It’s amazing what a difference a competent director can make. With no popcorn-scares and no CGI, THE DEAD ZONE is dark and disturbing and atmospheric.
Peter: What’s also amazing is how much this particular title has become a part of our pop culture. Like with cell phones, when we drop a call because we somehow wandered into a DEAD ZONE. They even use it in commercials.
Lil’ Stevie: Not to mention THE DEAD ZONE was also adapted into the cult fan-favorite television show of the same name (2002 – 2007), starring that goofy kid from SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984).
Peter: Long Duk Dong?
Lil’ Stevie: No, the other goofy kid…Anthony Michael Hall.
Peter: Of course, horror fans will also recognize the title of Bev Vincent’s column NOTES FROM THE ZONE, which runs in Cemetery Dance Magazine, and deals with the life and fiction of Stephen King. And Mainers will recognize the call-letters, WZON, the radio station OWNED by Stephen King.
Lil’ Stevie: It’s everywhere!
Peter: I knew you’d say that.
Lil’ Stevie: Cut it out!
Peter: I knew you’d say that, too.
Lil’ Stevie: You’re really annoying.
Peter: Yep…You’re almost predictable.
(Lil’ Stevie whistles over to the Castle Rock Killer, who is kneeling down next to the dead girl on the gazebo floor).
Lil’ Stevie: Hey, Frank…My friend here says you kill young girls because you’re impotent and you like dressing in your Mommy’s underwear.
(Frank stands up and turns his scissors towards Peter).
Peter: Oops…Well, folks, thanks for joining us. See you next time.
© Copyright 2012 by Peter N. Dudar