The Daily Stream: 'The Dead Zone' is the Often Overlooked Stephen King Masterpiece

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: The Dead Zone

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: The Dead Zone is often overshadowed by the other big Stephen King adaptations, like The Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, It, or The Shining. But Christopher Walken‘s iconic leading performance alone lets the movie stand shoulder to shoulder with the best King adaptations.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: What you have here is David Cronenberg at the height of his directorial powers adapting one of Stephen King’s best books with a juicy part for Christopher Walken to sink his teeth into.

If you’ve somehow missed this movie (or the book, or the Anthony Michael Hall TV series that ran for a surprisingly long time), the basic premise is this: Johnny Smith is an average guy, with an average name, leading a fairly average, but happy, life. One night, he gets into a car accident, falls into a coma, and wakes up 5 years later with a gift. Or a curse, depending on how you look at it. With a simple touch, he can see the future, and sometimes the past. For instance, when he touches a nurse shortly after coming out of the coma, he sees her daughter screaming in her bed, the room on fire, and he warns her in enough time to save the little girl.

That’s all well and good, but Johnny Smith just wants his old, mundane life back. He wants the love of his life, who has moved on and married someone else, and the family they dreamed of starting together. He wants to be a boring teacher trying to get the kids to read Edgar Allan Poe. What he doesn’t want is to be treated like a sideshow attraction.

But Johnny’s heart is too big. He cares too much and he helps people when he can, building a kind of small-town celebrity around him, a spotlight he doesn’t want.

The whole thing culminates with a politician named Greg Stillson (played with great zeal by Martin Sheen) who just so happens to be a corrupt scumbag who will eventually become president and start a nuclear war. Johnny knows this and has to figure out what to do about it.

What’s particularly amazing about this movie is that Walken is just on the edge of becoming the Walken most of us know; that borderline over-the-top guy that’s fun to try to impersonate with your friends. He has those moments in this movie. “The ICE! Is gonna BREAK!” comes to mind.

But for the most part, this is the Walken that hit the stage in the ’70s. He’s fully invested and plays this part with haunting melancholy. It’s a nuanced performance that people sometimes forget about, probably because of Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic.

The SNL spoof of his Dead Zone character, who can only predict unimportant events, is 100% pure uncut Walken, and I have a theory that some combine these two very different performances in their minds when they think back on The Dead Zone. The Walken in the movie has some crazy outbursts, but for the most part, he plays the tragedy of Johnny Smith, a man who had everything and then had it stripped away.

Stephen King’s greatest strength as an author is his character work. No matter how extraordinary the plot, he always grounds the world with characters you feel you know, whether it’s a group of kids fighting an evil clown or a mother and son trapped in a Ford Pinto by a rabid dog.

The best of the of the best of King’s adaptations are the ones that understand that and find a way to translate that fantastic character work to the big (or small) screen. Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Misery, Carrie, and, yes, The Dead Zone are all great examples of this. That’s why it’s so important not to overlook the great work Walken does here under the direction of David Cronenberg. When a good actor, a good director, and a good screenwriter tackle King well, you get an iconic character.

Cronenberg (or maybe his wardrobe department) made a very smart choice in giving Johnny Smith a silhouette you instantly recognize. That’s a test monster makers use to see if their creations are striking. If they look imposing in silhouette, then they’re on the right track.

It seems that works with heroes as well. Smith wears an instantly recognizable jacket with a spikey collar, leans on a cane, and, to top it all off, you have Walken’s impressive head of hair. If you just saw an outline drawing of him you’d know who it is.

King’s original novel was more than a little angry, politically, and that translates to the 1983 movie. In fact, The Dead Zone had a bit of a new life at the beginning of the Trump presidency with people drawing parallels between the fictional Greg Stillson and Trump.

Both men are populists who value loyalty over all else and they both love to use headwear as campaign swag. Although, for Stillson, it’s a hardhat instead of a red cap.

It’s a little bit of a stretch, to be honest. Stillson’s a trained, calculated politician and Trump’s appeal for many was that he was not. Also, let’s be real…the way Stillson is brought down in the book and movie wouldn’t have swayed a single Trump supporter. But still, it’s not hard to see why the comparison was made.

So now, almost 40 years after its release, The Dead Zone is just as relevant as ever. One of the reasons for this is how the story is structured in a series of vignettes. Johnny Smith has a myriad of encounters with his gift: He ID’s a serial killer, tutors a boy who is headed for an early, icy grave, and shakes a politician’s hand and sees the end of the world as we know it.

It keeps the narrative fresh, and the story moving. It’s a quick, easy watch and deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as other Stephen King classics.

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