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Dead Zone, The

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (1983). Dino De Laurentiis Company, Lorimar Film Entertainment. Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Jeffrey Boam, based on The Dead Zone (1979) by Stephen King. Cast includes Brooke Adams, Jackie Burroughs, Nicholas Campbell, Simon Craig, Colleen Dewhurst, Géza Kovács, Herbert Lom, Martin Sheen, Tom Skerritt, Sean Sullivan, Christopher Walken and Anthony Zerbe. 103 minutes. Colour.

The Dead Zone is Stephen King's first tale set in and around the imaginary inland town of Castle Rock, located somewhere north-west of Portland, Maine, and is perhaps the most successful of the various stories and novels placed there, the best later Castle Rock title being the complex Horror tale Needful Things (1991). The recent Television anthology series, Castle Rock (2018-current), makes no direct use of any preceding stories by King.

The Dead Zone was shot in southern Ontario, mostly in Niagara-on-the-Lake, whose domestic architecture seems only marginally less bleak than inland Maine in the off season. Except for the false-note suburban theme park in the opening sequence (filmed elsewhere), the sustained wintry intimacy of The Dead Zone clearly gains from the film-makers' adherence to a versimilitudinous small-town setting; the prosperous unclutteredness of the venue (compared to the real inland Maine) perhaps reflects a Canadian slowness to modernize. The shoot was plainly made in the winter; an icy silence marks every exterior shot, a sense of Keep-like coerciveness hinted at by the town's very name [for Polder see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Within these psychic and physical limits, an adroitly event-filled tale unfolds in less than two hours, without seeming haste.

Cronenberg and his writer Geoffrey Boam claimed (in interviews) that they achieved this feat of narrative compression by coming up with a tripartite narrative structure: accident and paranormal aftermath; search for serial killer; destruction of demagogic politician. But this seriously misrepresents the elegant estranging power of The Dead Zone, for there is more going on here than a redescribed version of the three-act structure normal to Western cinema. The Dead Zone is better understood as comprising a prologue and five (or perhaps six) acts, each dominated by one (or two) of the ten epiphanic pulses that wrack (and rescue) Smith when he clasps the hand of an unknowing communicant. Each of these six (or seven) channelling events is marked by a caesura in the flow of narrative time, during which months may pass: what Smith does not see, we do not, as the film is shot almost entirely from his POV. The only other Western director similarly to eschew the three-act thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure native to Western Cinema seems to be Quentin Tarantino (1963-    ), whose multi-act narrative sequences, and consequent problematizing of POV flow, also work to estrange our viewing experience.

The prologue begins five years before the main action. Johnny Smith (walken) is afflicted by a sudden savage headache on a rollercoaster ride with his fiancee Sarah Bracknell (Adams). (Scenes suggesting he had a childhood brain tumour were cut from the film.) Smith then drives Sarah home through bad fog, but – out of a bluestocking punctilio both deeply regret for the rest of their lives – declines her offer to have him stay the night. Driving home the fog-blinded Smith – whose headache may have been an abortive warning – crashes into a jack-knifed truck, and he falls into the first gap.

After five years in a coma, Smith awakens in the clinic owned by Dr Sam Weizak (Lom), who treats him with deep sympathy but foolishly allows Smith's sanctimonious Christian mother Vera Smith (Burroughs) to blurt out the news that Sarah, after years of mourning, had married and has a ten-month old son. Christopher Walken's rendering of anguished resignation at this point, and Brooke Adams's rendering of a similarly complex anguish after their first meeting, is initially and innovatively gripping; it is remarkable that in a commercial film there is no misunderstanding between the two, no routine "second-act" melodrama . In the clinic, he clasps the hand of a nurse and is smitten by the first pulse of revelation: what turns out to be his Psi Power, which as an invention of Pseudoscience means whatever the story needs, gives him in this case sight of a present-time event: the nurse's daughter trapped at that very moment in a burning house. He forces her to run home; she finds her daughter alive in the arms of a fireman.

There is a gap of months. Smith retrains his wasted muscles and learns to walk again. He clasps Sam Weizak's hand in friendship, which ignites the second pulse: this time it is something long ago, Weizak as a young child in the ruins of a Polish city invaded by Nazis. This vision is accompanied by the knowledge, seemingly aural, that Weizak's mother is still alive. Weizak is deeply shaken. There is a short gap. Media interest has been aroused – the Media Landscape will be central to the climax – and Smith reluctantly agrees to a press conference, where a reporter tauntingly challenges him to demonstrate his power. Smith takes his hand – this is the third pulse – and asks him if he wants to know just why his sister committed Suicide. Smith is left alone to heal. He and Sarah make love, belatedly, but without a future in view.

There is a gap. Castle Rock's Sheriff Bannerman (Skerritt) calls to ask Smith to help him trace a serial killer who has been active for several years. Smith agrees, apprehensively. He is given a discarded cigarette – the fourth pulse – which tells him nothing; but when he clasps a newly murdered teenager's wrist, the fifth pulse shows her being murdered by the sheriff's deputy Frank Dodd (Campbell). Cornered in his home, Dodd kills himself grotesquely (see Horror in SF); Smith takes his mother's hand – the sixth pulse – and "reads" her mind (see Telepathy): she knows her son is a serial killer. In a spasm of motherly denial, she shoots Smith.

A gap of months pass while Smith recovers offscreen from the wound. Returning to the world, he agrees to tutor young Chris Stuart (Craig), son of the bullyingly insensitive Roger Stuart (Zerbe), a local magnate, who introduces him briefly to Gregg Stillson (Sheen), a "roguish", charismatic populist running for state Senator. Smith and Stillson do not touch flesh at this point. Later Smith clasps Chris's hand – it is the seventh pulse – and experiences his first Precognition: Chris drowning in the family lake after his father has insisted on arranging a hockey match on thin ice. Smith confronts him, and is fired: but Chris has heard the exchange, and when Smith shakes his hand goodbye – the eighth pulse – he feels a welcome blankness: Chris will be safe, as he will refuse his father's continuing insistence that he join the match. The next day a newspaper photo shows other children drowning (see Red Shirts). We see Stuart sitting devastated in his mansion, having killed children and ruined his life. Weizak later tells Smith that the blankness he felt was is a "dead zone", a moment in the future which might possibly be changed. (It may be a sign of commercial imperatives that the film was not called The Life Zone.)

After a short gap, for the tide of story is rising, Smith comes across Stillson at a pre-rally gathering and clasps his hand, which is the ninth pulse that The Dead Zone has been building towards, and for the second time it is a vision of the future which, as we have learned from the drowning episode, we know is true. Stillson, now president of the United States, forces an unnamed five star general to palm the scanner that clears access to the war button, which Stillson now presses, starting World War Three, shouting "Hallelujah!" He tells the Secretary of State to tear up a newly achieved accord with the unnamed foe (clearly the Soviets), because the missiles have been unleashed, the Holocaust has begun: "I am the voice of the people.!"

Later that day, Smith asks Weizak if, given the chance, he would kill Hitler. Weizak says, yes. That it would be worth dying to change history. Weizak has just spoken Smith's death sentence. Not an athlete, not a Superhero stripped of a feeble disguise, he decides to try to assassinate Stillson at the rally that night in the village hall. Shaking with tension, he hides in the balcony. He catches sight of Sarah, whose husband has persuaded her to work as a volunteer; holding her son, she stands onstage next to Stillson. Smith fires, misses as expected and, himself fatally wounded in the inevitable counter fire, topples to the main floor. But in the meantime Stillson has panicked and has grabbed Sarah's infant son, thrusting him above his head as a human shield. A newsman snaps the scene (see again Media Landscape). In the chaos, Stillson approaches the prone Smith, who clasps his hand: it is the tenth pulse. Smith smiles. He has seen two visions of a changed future: a Newsweek cover featuring the snap of Stillson, face contorted with panic as he lifts the infant in front of him to take the next bullet; Stillson, deserted and alone in his hotel room, shooting himself in the face. There is the tiniest of gaps. Sarah kneels by Smith as he dies. She says "I love you."

The Dead Zone, a chamber tragedy that does not fault a note, seems to have been made in all consciousness of its message: which is that there is no carryover here, no superhero-enabled sf-ish hope for the world. Smith himself has in fact done nothing except expose what men of power are capable of. The icy carceral claustrophobia of the setting, never departed from, only emphasizes the closedness of a tale with no escape, no hint – unusual in an sf film whose protagonist dies – of Transcendence. There is no salvation whimsy; the ice of Castle Rock does not break into spring. Nothing in the film suggests that Smith's sacrifice has decreased the likelihood of America's surrendering to another Stillson. [JC/PN]


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