Compared to director David Cronenberg’s Videodrome from the same year (or any film he had previously made), The Dead Zone initially feels like a populist slab of straightforward, uncerebral, hip-fired entertainment, an attempt to make his name by getting on the Stephen King bandwagon. Unsurprisingly, then, Dead Zone feels ever so slightly alienated, as though itcan’t quite commit to its themes, can’t fully enter into its own world and explore it, as though it always exists at an imaginative remove from its content compared to Cronenberg’s earlier works, so obviously passion projects he was fully invested in. Something about the work seems to exist at a remove from its narrative, as though it is hovering slightly above or looking at it through a tear in the fabric of the universe it can see through but cannot quite invest itself in.
Yet, this is also a perversely well fit for the film’s themes, adapting King’s book about a Maine schoolteacher who awakes from a five-year coma with a form of second-sight, suddenly able to see beyond his present world into the future, and who has to find his way back to a present that has seemingly abandoned him and which he can no longer cope with. The Dead Zone is all about alienation, about falling below society’s threshold for engagement and perception, about fumbling, half-hearted attempts to rhyme with the rhythms of a society that you feel you are ever-so-slightly askew from. Much like the film’s protagonist Johnny, there is a clear sense that Cronenberg’s film feels, sees, and experiences in ways that are more receptive to strangeness than those around him will allow themselves to, and the mis-match between theme and director paradoxically becomes a match. The Dead Zone’s odd gambles and lurching half-steps come to suggest the difficulties of marrying personal sensibilities with the flow of everyday social life clearly resonate with Cronenberg’s own attempt to make a Hollywood product, to engage in the kind of personal self-sabotage necessary to produce a film that was almost certainly lorded over by producers. More philosophically, The Dead Zone seems to be reaching for ideas that it cannot express in clear terms, glimpsing fragments of a world that it does not have complete access to.
Substantially altering the structure of Stephen King’s novel, Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay, perhaps itself revised by Cronenberg, does away with King’s dual-character structure and even a conventional Hollywood screenplay’s sense of cause-and-effect and linear progression. While our nominal protagonist is Johnny (Christopher Walken), Dead Zone really unfurls as a series of moods, textures, and sensations, each barely sensible but all inching into Johnny’s life. It’s more of a situation than a narrative: after a traumatic accident and several years spent in a coma, Johnny wakes up and slowly discovers that he can sense the future. Rather than organizing this around an A-plot that Johnny has to resolve, the film segments itself into self-consciously different sequences that are only tenuously connected at the narrative level. Instead, the texture of Dead Zone is almost pre-cinematic, even symphonic, accreting via repetitions and differences, harmonies and breakages. Johnny’s life post-coma is a paradox. He seems like a sleepwalking figure entirely at odds with the world around him, essentially unable to negotiate an environment he feels subjected to. He has no narrative flow to his life, and the film lets these hinges show rather than papering them over. Incidents are psychically and thematically connected rather than narratively tethered, the whole film existing in a psychic fugue state, as though, gifted with second sight, it has been knocked out of its own time. Johnny revitalizes the Emersonian sense of second-sight in a way that exposes the tension between idealist and realist temperaments, between envisioning beyond the present and engaging with the present as a lived, felt reality.
In this sense, it’s telling that in the film’s back-half, the conflict organizes around Johnny’s premonition concerning a populist politician named Greg Stillson, played by Martin Sheen, with an itchy nuclear trigger figure. Sheen had played vague and hazy visionaries in his two great ‘70s performances, in Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In each case, he walks through the film in a sensory stupor, as though unable to truly reconcile himself to the world around him, inhabiting a visionary realm rather than the world around him. In Malick’s Badlands, his Kit Carruthers was so infatuated with a self-constructed idiom of American nomadic masculinity that he lost the ability to connect with (or fascistically reconstructed a gross parody of) everyday rituals of simple living and social connection. Nomadically running away with his would-be lover, played by Sissy Spacek, they erect a house in the woods, anointed with a painting of nature to keep them from noticing the real thing. They mechanically perform semiotic functions of domesticity, with Spacek’s narration gesturing toward the sublimity they seem unable to engage with via their actions.
In one key scene, Kit uses an audio recording device to impart his world philosophy as his last will to the people, and all he can muster is a series of generic platitudes, his unthinking parody of politician-speak. Watching Dead Zone, it’s as though Kit had genuinely become a politician, hermetically closed off from the human receptivity that Johnny, despite the film’s cold-ness, genuinely effuses. If Kit seemed to walk around in a trance without even being aware of it, suggesting the violently dissociating from everyday life, Johnny’s plight evokes the tragic but melancholically revolutionary capacity of similar transcendence. He sees beneath the surfaces of the present and attempts to change the course of history for the better, whereas Greg Stillson simply attempts to deny the chaos of life by resorting to (now Trumpian) common-man fallacies that breed desires to control.
While Cronenberg is in some sense Malick’s polar opposite, working at frigid temperatures rather than with Malick’s humanistic warmth, both engage directly the difficulties of visionary romanticism, the possibilities of perceiving in the world. In this sense, Dead Zone feels like Cronenberg’s attempt to see what giving some of himself over to the system would do for his sensibility, to divest himself of full control in order to animate his social sensibilities, to see if he can inspire life in a product not fully his own, to attempt to create within the world, within structures that are ostensibly oppressive, much as Howard Hawks and other directors left their personal stamp on ostensibly corporate products. Embodying his particular brand of frigidity, Dead Zone works at frigid temperatures of a different texture from, say, John Carpenter (or Michael Mann for that manner), whose same-year King adaptation of killer machinery was more mechanical (although not in a bad way!). Cronenberg’s exploration feels almost impersonally persona: ethereal and languid, investigating uncanny and uncertain surfaces barely holding off wider portents of things to come.