THE DEAD ZONE. King’s sci-fi horror directed by Cronenberg

The Dead Zone surprises with its calmness and restraint, especially considering that it’s a production by David Cronenberg from the 1980s, a time when he was known for his most spectacular...

Jan Dąbrowski

19 February 2024

THE DEAD ZONE. King's sci-fi horror directed by Cronenberg

Just eight months earlier, Videodrome premiered, a grim fusion of techno-thriller with body horror about the detrimental influence of television, renowned for its elaborate special effects.

Meanwhile, The Dead Zone is more of a psychological drama with a clear theme of unfulfilled love. In the main character, although he is a psychic and can influence the course of history, what matters most is how he deals with loneliness and the situation he finds himself in. Doctors, journalists, and police officers see him as a local attraction, while all he wants is peace and to start a family with his beloved by his side. Although the film contains elements of both crime and horror, the drama of the individual, separated from normal life by a supernatural ability, takes center stage. In this regard, The Dead Zone is very close to the famous The Fly.

The Dead Zone Christopher Walken

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) wakes up from a five-year coma caused by a car accident. His doctor, Dr. Weizak (Herbert Lom), informs him that before he can walk again, he must undergo a long rehabilitation. During this time, he has much to contemplate as he learns from his parents that he lost his job at the school, and his girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams), has gotten married. Initially devastated by the barrage of bad news, Johnny tries to pull himself together. When he accidentally touches a nurse’s hand, he sees a fire in her house, where a little girl is trapped in flames. The vision turns out to be true, and the child is saved, making Johnny, against his will, a local hero. Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) visits him and asks for help in finding a serial killer, but Smith consistently seeks peace and refuses. However, after some thought, he decides to cooperate with the police, realizing that his clairvoyant gift can save someone’s life.

The Dead Zone Christopher Walken Martin Sheen

Over the years, the film has gained recognition for two reasons. Firstly, it is primarily a solid individual drama focused on the inner life of the protagonist. Johnny is a typical Cronenbergian protagonist: he stands apart from the rest of society and doesn’t feel fully a part of it, no matter how much he desires to. He is a sensitive individualist marked by a stigma, which becomes an obsession drawing him away from normal life. Secondly, Johnny is played by Christopher Walken. With his appearance, movement, and distinctive voice, he compellingly portrays all the states of the character, from confusion and anger to warmth. Though known for his theatrical performances, in The Dead Zone, his portrayal is restrained and tailored to the introverted character, who only reluctantly unleashes his emotions. The film was released in 1983, just five years after Walken’s Oscar-winning role in Michael Cimino‘s The Deer Hunter, so the contemporary audience knew him as a talented dramatic actor. Today, with roles in Batman Returns, Pulp Fiction, The Prophecy, Catch Me If You Can, and many, many others, it’s even more fascinating to watch him in his younger years in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel.

The Dead Zone Martin Sheen

The Dead Zone is primarily a psychological drama, which paradoxically fits better with Cronenberg’s latest films, as he moved away from body horror towards intimate character studies. However, in the 1980s, the director was mainly associated with special effects and gore. Although there was always a deeper thought behind them, it was the visceral form that earned him the title of the guru of gore. Meanwhile, in The Dead Zone, both Johnny’s recovery and his visions are presented quite conservatively, and the only bloody scene lasts a few seconds and won’t raise the blood pressure of today’s audience. Consequently, those who associate Cronenberg only with horror may be disappointed. However, considering his last six films, it’s hard not to notice that it’s primarily psychological drama that interests him the most.


Jan Dąbrowski

Self-proclaimed Cronenbergologist, blogger, editor, connoisseur of good coffee, and lover of insects.

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