Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Film Review: THE DEAD ZONE (1983, David Cronenberg)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 103 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER, KING OF NEW YORK), Brooke Adams (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS '78, DAYS OF HEAVEN), Tom Skerritt (ALIEN, CHEERS), Herbert Lom (SPARTACUS, EL CID), Anthony Zerbe (STEEL DAWN, THE OMEGA MAN), Martin Sheen (APOCALYPSE NOW, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE), Geza Kovacs (MEPHISTO, SCANNERS), Peter Dvorsky (VIDEODROME, THE PARK IS MINE), Les Carlson (VIDEODROME, THE FLY), Jackie Burroughs (MORE TALES OF THE CITY, HEAVY METAL).   Screenplay by Jeffrey Boam (THE LOST BOYS, LETHAL WEAPON 2), based on the novel by Stephen King. Cinematography by Mark Irwin (VIDEODROME, SCREAM).  Music by Michael Kamen (LETHAL WEAPON, DIE HARD).  Produced by Dino de Laurentiis (DUNE, BLUE VELVET) and Debra Hill (HALLOWEEN, THE FOG).
Tag-line: "In his mind, he has the power to see the future.  In his hands, he has the power to change it."
Best one-liner:  "The ICE...  is...gonna... BREAK!!!"

THE DEAD ZONE is not a flashy film.  It possesses a muted quality, it proceeds at its own pace, it relishes its understated, tragic plotting.  As such, it's often a forgotten (or at least marginalized) film, both in the David Cronenberg and Stephen King canons.  Hell, both of them had more elaborate (King's CHRISTINE and CUJO) and ballsier (Cronenberg's VIDEODROME) films come out the very same year (1983)!  THE DEAD ZONE is more of a psychological study: its monsters are not rabid St. Bernards, nor hellish Plymouth Furies, near-immortal Walkin' Dudes, demonic clowns, nor possessed industrial machinery– THE DEAD ZONE's monsters are men, and the perversions of human minds.  It's a strong film, and an artful one.  Here are eight reasons to visit THE DEAD ZONE:

1.  Melancholy Horror.
Readers of the site have heard me pontificate at length on the joys– er, I suppose I mean sorrows– of melancholy horror, which is probably my favorite of all the horror sub-genre classifications that I've pulled out of my ass across the years.  While this is a touch late in the game to qualify as Golden Age Melancholy Horror (1969-1981), it sure fits.  The mood is pensive, our hero unravels in misery.  The soundtrack, by Michael "LETHAL WEAPON & DIE HARD" Kamen even follows suit– it's downcast and quotes Tchaikovsky on occasion.

The imagery is wintry and despondent (as Canadian locations are wont to be).  The color palette is delicate, the spaces vacant, the trees barren.

I might just have Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as "SAD," or "winter depression." I think I'll mount a one-man campaign to have it colloquially renamed "The Dead Zone Blues."

2.  Kronenberg Kronies.
This one could easily also be called "The Villains of VIDEODROME Reunion Tour."
We got Les Carlson ("Barry Convex" from VIDEODROME) as a man being politically intimidated by Martin Sheen.  (And behind him is Géza Kovács, who played an assassin in SCANNERS.)

And then there's Peter Dvorsky ("Harlan" from VIDEODROME) as a sleazy reporter named Dardis.

An interesting side note is that in the novel, it's a sleazy reporter from fictional rag mag INSIDE VIEW named Richard Dees who comes to harass our hero, and he later shows up as the protagonist in a Stephen King short story called "The Night Flier," hunting down an exclusive about a Cessna-piloting vampire.  This short story was later made into a 1997 film starring Miguel Ferrer as Dees, which I'll review one of these days.  Miguel Ferrer (ROBOCOP, TRAFFIC, "Albert Rosenfield" on TWIN PEAKS) made for a fantastic sleazebag, but I'm going to go ahead and pretend that Dvorksy here is also playing Dees, as I feel like there's a spiritual connection between the unsavory acting choices of Dvorsky and Ferrer.

3.  The Collars.
How ya like your collars?  Popped?  I sure hope so.

We could probably call this thing "THE POPPED COLLAR ZONE."  And I'd be fine with that.

4.  Shit-Eatin' Sheen.
It doesn't happen often these days, but I love Martin Sheen as a villain.  He gives a brilliant, disturbing performance as a child molester in another melancholy horror flick, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE, and here he taps into the same realm of performance as a sociopath enamored by the power he lords over others.

Kind of prefiguring his far more benevolent politician on THE WEST WING, he imbues the role with an incredible polish.  He probably could have been a real politician.  Gone is the immature, animalistic villainy called for in BADLANDS, this character's a far darker, rational fellow.
He's got a pretty fantastic crazy-eye, as well:

5.  Strong Imagery.
I revisited THE DEAD ZONE this week, but I had seen it once previously, probably around the age of ten or eleven.  I didn't remember a great deal about it, but what stuck in my mind (and vague spoilers follow) was the vivid, haunting imagery of some of Walken's psychic episodes.  I still remembered, as if I had seen it yesterday, the shots of children breaking through the ice and plunging into frigid waters:

and the scenes of Sheen in his presidential bunker, contemplating World War III:

It's understated, but incredibly well done.  Cronenberg can play ya like a piano even without the sensationalism of flesh pods and Brundleflies and VHS vaginas!

6.  Walken's Psychic Episodes.

I already mentioned the strong imagery which accompanies them, but when Walken's in the midst of it, uttering something like "The ICE...  is...gonna... BREAK!!!," you are there with him.  It's nearly "overacting," but Walken is so present, so connected to the material that you simply have no choice but to believe his performance.
Also, though I usually am not the greatest fan of parodies, Walken's lampooning of his DEAD ZONE role re-imagined as "Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic" on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE is well worth your time.

7.  George Bannerman.
In the novels of Stephen King, much attention is paid to the details of the fictional community of Castle Rock (among others), and one of the markers for chronology becomes the succession of sheriffs in the town.  Bannerman is only a Constable back in THE BODY (the basis for STAND BY ME), gets promoted to Sheriff, plays large and memorable roles in THE DEAD ZONE and CUJO, and he's mentioned in passing even in novels that take place after his time.  Then he's replaced by Alan Pangborn (who's been depicted on screen by Michael Rooker and Ed Harris) who plays a major role in THE DARK HALF and NEEDFUL THINGS.  Anyway, what I'm saying is that King lends great verisimilitude to his fictional locales, and he does it so well, that you're looking forward to seeing how even minor characters will be depicted.  Bannerman was portrayed the same year in CUJO by Sandy Ward (THE ROCKFORD FILES, POLICE ACADEMY 2, THE PERFECT STORM), and while he does a fine job, Tom Skerritt is sort of exactly who you'd imagine from the page.

It's a fairly minor role here, but he lends it a genuine credibility.  We find Walken's psychic nature far easier to swallow as an audience because it plays so realistically off of Skerritt's skepticism (and eventual belief).

8.  The SLEEPY HOLLOW connection.
Early in the film, when he's still a (relatively) carefree schoolteacher, Walken assigns his class to read Washington Irving's THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW.

Little did he know, I'm sure, that some sixteen years later, he'd be playing the Headless Horseman himself.

Note the popped collar, however.  Some things never change, I suppose!  Four stars.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, I also saw it when I was a little dude and it's definitely due for a repeat viewing. Also very excited to see a mention of a possible review of "The Night Flier." If I may get ahead here, and excuse me if I've already blathered about it, "The Night Flier" is, to me, a perfect little gem of an underrated (almost totally unseen, it seems!) King film. It's perhaps the greatest thing Ferrer ever did, along with "RoboCop" and trying to save the smoldering turd that was "Deep Star Six" (seriously, the guy tried so valiantly to make that movie good, it's worth a watch just for that alone -- apologies to Greg Evigan of "My Two Dads" fame). Anyways, I love "The Night Flier." The dusty small towns, the King-ness, the whole bit. Sure, the ending may come off as a bit...much, somehow (and it's a crying shame that the dang box cover gives it away), but it matters little. It's just such a great time spent following Ferrer along the path; it had to end somehow, and the way it does is as good as any. Looking forward to a write up of that one for sure, and thanks for re-introducing "The Dead Zone!"

Sean Gill said...

Mike B.,

Glad you enjoyed– and I, too am a NIGHT FLIER fan. It's got a nice, "extended TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode" vibe, and it's nice to see Ferrer starring in something. I like the short story quite a bit, too. Hopefully I'll get around to it soon!

Haven't seen DEEP STAR SIX, though it and several of the ABYSS-era rip-offs have been on my list for a while. Juan Piquer Simon (of PIECES and SLUGS fame) apparently even did one called THE RIFT with R. Lee Ermey and Ray Wise!

J.D. Lafrance said...

Count me in with Mike B. as eagerly anticipating your review of THE NIGHT FLIER. It is one of my absolute fave King adaptations and Ferrer's awesome... bring the acidic nastiness hinted at in TWIN PEAKS and in full-force in ROBOCOP.

THE DEAD ZONE is an excellent adaptation and you're right, kinda underrated. Cronenberg dials things down for a melancholic vibe. SAD indeed. He really nails the depressing washed out vibe of Canadian winters.

And isn't Martin Sheen (and everyone else) wonderful in this? So nasty and chillingly so. He doesn't go over the top into mustache-twirling baddie but much more realistically fanatical. It's in the eyes... you take one look and you know this guy's no good and has to be stopped.

The film also as a powerful tragic quality... there's a certain fatalism to Johnny after he survives the accident that Walken captures so well.

Excellent review!

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for the kind words, my friend.
Had no idea there were so many NIGHT FLIER fans out there!

You're certainly right about Sheen– have you seen THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE? Between that and his work here, I am sort of disappointed he didn't get to play more villains– of course, that may have relegated him into more "character actor-y" territory in terms of his career.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

I want to revisit this one, cool review, I guess Walken likes Popped Collars!

J.D. Lafrance said...

I have not seen THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE but it is on my list. Turner Classic Movies shows it every so often and it was on Netflix streaming at one point.

Sean Gill said...

Thanks for stopping by!

You'll have to let me know what you think if you see it– not quite a horror film, not quite a drama– but it's got one of Sheen's finest performances, in my mind.