1983, the year in which The Dead Zone premiered.. was a very strange year.
The internet began, albeit on a very small scale. Klaus Barbie was arrested in Bolivia. Dragon’s Lair was released to arcades. The Sri Lankan Civil War kicked off. Thomas Sankara rose to power. Sports came out. More pertinent to our interests here, a man named Stanislav Petrov made a choice.
See, on September 6th, the Soviet Union admitted that they’d shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. This was, as you might imagine 35 years later, kind of a big deal. At the time, it caused a major international incident, such that the military forces of both global superpowers were severely on edge. So, on September 26th, Petrov was seated in his position as the duty officer for the Soviet nuclear launch early-warning system when the computer spat out that it had detected a missile launch from the United States. The computer followed this up by saying that there were in fact five missiles launched from American silos and on their way to wreak havoc in the USSR.
Petrov had a choice, which in retrospect was probably the single most important choice any human being has ever made. If he reported it to his superiors, they would, in the limited window of time available to them, absolutely authorize a counter-attack which would, 99 times out of 100, lead to a series of exchanges which would extinguish all life on earth and leave the place a silent, irradiated tomb. If he didn’t report it, and it turned out to be a real attack, it would lead to the destruction of his homeland and his people. What if it was a false reading, though? In 1983 the early warning systems on either side were susceptible to false readings and other glitches; the burning question at that very moment was if this was one of those times.
You can figure out which decision he made by the very fact that you’re reading this.
What If You Could Go Back And Kill Hitler Before He Got Started?
Petrov had a choice, and David Cronenberg’s adaptation of The Dead Zone is about a man facing a similar sort of choice. If you knew that a man would eventually go on to murder billions, would you stop that man? Could you stop that man?
Johnny Smith, played with memorable seething frustration by Christopher Walken, faces just that kind of choice. On the eve of finally, maybe, almost getting some from his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams), he gets into a vicious car accident. He wakes up five years later alive – but single. You win some, you lose some. Also, as it turns out, he has psychic powers; if he touches the right people he can see something extremely pertinent to them. It might be happening right then, or it might happen years in the future. Either way, he can tell you when your house is burning down with your daughter in it. He can tell you that your mother, from whom you were separated in Europe during the war, is still alive and well.
He’s a frustrated dude, though. His girlfriend has gone off and gotten married with children. His mom (Jackie Burroughs, better known to some as Hettie King) thinks it’s a miracle from God, but her opinion doesn’t count for much since she dies five minutes later. He gets in wrestling matches with tabloid reporters, snaps at those closest to him, and generally seems miserable.
“I Just Stood There And Watched Her Die.”
One thing that Walken gets across perfectly in The Dead Zone is a mounting sense of desperation. He feels like his life should mean something, but his actions just result in him spinning his wheels. The murder case seems at first like a natural fit. Sheriff Bannerman (who would go on to end up in the gullet of one Cujo the Dog) needs his help and he grudgingly accepts. He can only uncover the killer after the fact, though. He points his finger and the murderer, the murderer’s victims, and the murderer’s mother all die. His choice to help his young student doesn’t succeed; only raw luck saves the kid from drowning.
Enter Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen, the exact opposite of Jed Bartlet), man of the people and one nutty son of a bitch. He’s on his way to a Senate seat but Johnny knows he’s really going to the Presidency. From there, he’s going to wake up one night, madly deciding to “embrace his destiny” by plunging the world into nuclear war. So for a moment, the real Stanislav Petrov and the fictional Johnny Smith converge. The choice is on the table: choose to go against the grain, to commit an anti-social act, and face the high consequences. The alternative is to do nothing abnormal, to follow orders, to keep your head down, save your own skin – and let billions die.
Which do you choose?
How Does It All Come Out?
Spoiler alert: Johnny chooses to act, attempting a political assassination that succeeds in the metaphorical sense, rather than the physical sense. He does it in Stephen King’s original novel, as well; in fact, a lot of the movie plays out pretty much as it does in the book. Was that always the case though? A number of screenplays were written for the film adaptation, including one that producer Dino De Laurentiis insisted King write himself. How that one turned out is anyone’s guess. Cronenberg himself rejected it on the grounds that it was “needlessly brutal,” so that may be a clue.
The actual script used was written by Jeffrey Boam, and it originally had a weird form of a Hollywood ending. Johnny doesn’t die, but instead lives to track down Frank Dodd, the maniac Castle Rock Killer that he identifies in the middle third of the film. Cronenberg thankfully talked Boam around to the idea that Hollywood endings are lame at the best of times, and so the film ending parallels the book ending almost exactly. Despite Boam’s contemporary moaning about the overwritten length of King’s novel, he manages to fit almost everything in to the film’s running time.
It Looks Grim But It’s Just Niagara In The Winter
The success of The Dead Zone isn’t just in it’s well-balanced script and timeless questions. The setting plays a big role as well. Even the warmer tones are seemingly frozen, cast as an endless grey winter. While part of this is certainly a reflection of the frozen nature of Johnny’s life it’s also just the reality of where Cronenberg chose to shoot.
Most of The Dead Zone is filmed in and around Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, about an hour south of Cronenberg’s home city of Toronto. The tunnel scene during the investigation of the Castle Rock Killer is shot at the infamous Screaming Tunnel, an allegedly haunted place near Niagara Falls. The murder scene along the water in the gazebo was shot along the river near the also allegedly haunted Fort George. The amusement park scene at the beginning is a special treat for Canadians as well. The park that Johnny and Sarah are visiting is in actuality Canada’s Wonderland, which had just opened two years prior. While the park itself is probably haunted (the whole country is, really), the name of the ride they’re zipping around in is the Ghoster Coaster.
The whole film was shot over the course of the winter of 1982-83, which was an exceptionally cold one. The unrelenting chill pervades the film itself; colours are drained, characters seem to shiver without even acknowledging it. Even the interior shots seem cramped, with walls that look as though they would frost your hand to touch them. This is especially true of the scene at the House of Dodd; the walls look positively frostbitten, and the disarray of the pictures on them make the effect even more striking. The cold, detached ambiance of how The Dead Zone is shot fits the slow desperate creep of Johnny’s character arc.
The Missiles Are Flying! Hallelujah!
The Dead Zone was the first film Cronenberg didn’t write; you can tell from the distinct lack of body horror. It’s also a first-rate Stephen King adaptation, from an era where there were a lot of great King films. It wasn’t even the only King adaptation of 1983; the others were John Carpenter’s Christine and Lewis Teague’s Cujo. It’s easily the best of them, though, and it’s better than most of the others by a comfortable margin. 35 years later we’re still asking ourselves: if we have the chance to take a risk and save a life, should we take it? When the risk gets big enough, when the stakes are big enough, can we?