Shortly after David Cronenberg made the bizarre, social supertext Videodrome, he released a far more conventional thriller in the form of The Dead Zone, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel (and the eventual basis of a television show). Videodrome is arty and illogical, and, three decades later, stands up as the director’s best work. The Dead Zone sees Cronenberg stick to the script and focus on storytelling, but that means that he cannot cover-up the flaws, and what emerges is an inconsistent film that is unmemorable both as a King adaptation and as a Cronenberg film. The story, about teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) awakening from a coma with the ability to see the future of a person by touching their hand, is a good one, but it’s also largely devoid of worthy subtext.
Even with a poorly directed car-crash scene near the beginning, The Dead Zone is perhaps Cronenberg’s best looking film from the 1980s, and it shows especially in the day-time exteriors, which are shot on bright, cloudy days that let the camera show off both the greenery and the snow of Ontario. Additionally, the sets show off what Cronenberg can do with a bigger budget, a trend that would continue with eXistenZ and A Dangerous Method.
On the other hand, some of the acting, most notably Brooke Adams in a crucial role as Johnny’s girlfriend, is cringe-worthy. An underdeveloped love story on the page, The Dead Zone relies heavily on chemistry between Adams and Walken, and while neither is particularly romantic, Adams’ line deliveries during their intimate moments are particularly hard to swallow, and crucial supporting roles (aside from Martin Sheen) fails to add any edge or urgency to The Dead Zone’s surplus of storylines, which include not just the romance, but also an adjustment/rehabilitation arc, a detective story, Johnny’s work as a tutor, and the third-party campaign of a loud, ill-intended politician. These stories are usually consecutive, not intertwining but moving on from one to the next, which makes The Dead Zone an occasionally aimless story.
It certainly has some weak spots, and the final election plot grows suddenly and unconvincingly, but it also creates the only sense of urgency or importance that the film ever takes. Johnny’s overlying problems regarding his blessing/curse and its adverse impact on his life is rarely explored, and that his girlfriend married someone else while he was in a coma seems to be anything more than incidental just once. By and large, Walken’s convincing and conflicted performance, combined with a steady stream of eye-catching compositions, which let the film work. Otherwise, it’s the small, seemingly minor scenes that are best. Any interaction between characters that allows natural development is preferable to the forced, plot-driven sequences.
Still, in the end, it all feels so slight. Martin Sheen’s character, who eventually proves to be the “villain” (this is a thriller, even as it masquerades as a character drama), is too one-dimensional to be a compelling villain, foreshadowing is a bit too heavy to make the ending surprising, and Johnny’s doctor has a dropped subplot.
These errors are Cronenberg’s as much as anyone else’s, but what it proves is that Cronenberg’s unique brand of body-horror operates best when logic is ignored. Without the creative freedom, Cronenberg turns in a harmless thriller, but an unexciting one, too