Review: The Dead Zone (1983)

the dead zone

I have trouble getting into any type of zone, let alone a dead one!

Screenplay By: Jeffrey Boam
Directed By: David Cronenberg

Martin Sheen’s character, Greg Stillson, served a purpose by the end of the film. However, the way he was inserted into the film was ham handed and helped to ruin the flow of the narrative. I really enjoyed the first half of The Dead Zone, as well as a few moments before the ending. But, from when Stillson comes on the screen until his final few minutes the film grinds to a halt. All the interest the first half had sparked in me is thrown out the window by the clunky nature the film takes on after Stillson’s appearance. The ending almost makes up for some of what the film loses with Stillson, but it also flies off the rails in its final moments.

The first half of The Dead Zone is slow, stoic, and haunting. This is thanks in equal part to the performance of Christopher Walken and the direction of David Cronenberg. Mr. Walken has become a caricature in recent years, and I can’t help but feel that helped to make his performance in The Dead Zone even more impressive. I could see the pain and the hurt of his gift/curse behind Mr. Walken’s eyes. When the camera was on him I had no choice but to focus on him, that’s how magnetic Mr. Walken’s personality is in The Dead Zone. Said performance is accentuated by the direction of Mr. Cronenberg. Most important, during the first half of the film at least, is the patience displayed by Mr. Cronenberg. He doesn’t rush his characters or his scenario, and the time spent with Johnny Smith is all the more haunting because of the lazy pace. I wouldn’t call The Dead Zone horrific in the traditional sense, but it is horrific in the ideas it explores and the atmosphere that Mr. Walken’s performance and Mr. Cronenberg’s direction combine to create.

Unfortunately the second half of the film had to happen, and oh boy was it a stinker of a second half. It really all does come down to Mr. Sheen as Greg Stillson. He’s inserted into the picture and he immediately takes over the film. Yet, for as much as the film wants to stuff Stillson down the viewers throat he doesn’t hold a candle to Johnny. It’s clear as day whenever Johnny is on screen that he is far more interesting than the cardboard cutout of a villain that is Greg Stillson. At some point The Dead Zone turns from a David Cronenberg film and into a typical Hollywood film. Nothing is more emblematic of this turn than the tie everything into a neat bow ending. It’s far too happy, in a somber way I’ll admit, and neat of an ending. It’s an ending that in no way fits with the tone of the first half, and in all honesty the ending of The Dead Zone left me quite pissed at how saccharine and sweet it wants to be in a film that should be as far removed as possible from saccharine and sweet.

If The Dead Zone had followed through on its strong first half I have no doubt I would be finishing this review talking about how I had just watched another great David Cronenberg film. Sadly The Dead Zone is a completely different film in its second half, and a much worse film. This isn’t another great David Cronenberg film, rather The Dead Zone is one of the rare misses from Mr. Cronenberg. The premise is interesting, and I can’t fault Mr. Walken for his great performance, but the final product leaves a lot to be desired.




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