Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. Today we’ll be discussing David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone making its way to Blu-ray in a gorgeous collector’s edition from the fine folks at Scream Factory.
“You are either in possession of a very new human ability… or a very old one.”
Dr. Sam Weizak
Credit must be given to how Ronald Sanders managed to edit The Dead Zone in such a way that we identify with Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) and Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adam) so strongly through what is essentially an opening montage that establishes pure unadulterated love. When Smith is waxing poetically about The Raven to his engrossed group of pupils, he carries an expression of satisfaction. As he enthusiastically gives them their homework on Sleepy Hollow, which judiciously foreshadows events that will come into play, we see a young man who has everything he could possibly want in life. A man in love. We inhabit the joy that Johnny and Sarah feel on their date at the amusement park and we acknowledge that Johnny is a gentleman when he refuses her invitation at her front door. Then David Cronenberg gives us one flashing moment in his automobile and everything we’ve seen him relish in those brief few moments are completely taken away.
When Johnny awakens from his five year coma with his newfound psychic ability this film becomes horror, science fiction, and eventually a political thriller, but at its core it remains a tragedy which is why we feel Johnny’s painful struggles of dealing with losing the love of his wife and the aching transformation of becoming a sideshow attraction to the locals of Castle Rock. When Johnny is recruited by the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) to help find a local serial killer, the film begins to take on a giallo influence. The killer (Nicholas Campbell) is even adorned with a black raincoat and a pair of scissors. This section of the film is when the fun horror elements come into play and when Michael Kamen’s score is most effectively used. It, at times, invokes a Bernard Herrmann-like sensibility. Cinematographer Mark Irwin (The Blob) wisely keeps the killer’s identity out of frame to establish a sense of dread that a filmmaker like Dario Argento had mastered early on in his work. When we’re introduced to reprehensible politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) and his ruthless quest for power, it becomes clear how these themes will always be universal. Here, Smith poses the question “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?” Given enough time, there will most likely be recent men in power that would be used as a similar example in genre cautionary tales. Martin Sheen’s skills as an actor have rightfully never been questioned, but he embodied this slimy racketeer so well that when learning of his humanitarian work off camera, his tremendous skills as an actor became even more apparent.
The most notable asset to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam’s thematically faithful approach to King’s source material are the subtle differences. Take, for example, the definition of “the dead zone” itself. In the novel, that term is referring to a damaged part of Johnny Smith’s mind that awakens a dormant psychic ability. In the film it’s referred to as the missing parts of Johnny’s vision, the deleted scenes if you will. With this approach it makes the title’s definition not only less of the focal point pertaining to Smith’s journey, but an interesting way of connecting this film thematically with the rest of David Cronenberg’s oeuvre. In Videodrome he examined our subconscious relationship with media consumption. In The Dead Zone our protagonist is basically dealing with a visual satellite feed that assaults him with images instigated by the mere brush of human contact. Boam and Cronenberg’s collaboration wisely chooses to focus on the human elements of King’s story which makes the supernatural elements feel slightly organic and effortless to suspend disbelief. It’s this element of The Dead Zone that truly has it stand against the test of time as one of the greater film adaptations of Stephen King’s tremendous body of work.
As always, Scream Factory treats their customers right when it comes to the special features on their collector’s editions. One of the standouts is “Cold Visions – Producing The Dead Zone,” made by regular Scream Factory contributors Red Shirt Pictures. Production Manager Jeffrey Chernov brings great insight into working with the late Debra Hill and the uphill battle they had with Dino De Laurentis. Also included is a great “Trailers From Hell” with Mick Garris and plenty of other rich extras for all of us to enjoy. This is Scream Factory’s greatest release of the year thus far and is well worth adding to your collection.
The Dead Zone Special Features
- NEW 2021 4K Scan Of The Original Camera Negative
- NEW Sarah’s Story – An Interview With Actress Brooke Adams
- NEW Cold Visions: Producing The Dead Zone – Featuring Interviews With Production Manager John M. Eckert And Associate Producer Jeffrey Chernov
- NEW Audio Commentary With Director Of Photography Mark Irwin
- NEW Audio Commentary With Film Historian Michael Gingold
- NEW Audio Commentary With Film Historian/Author Dr. Steve Haberman And Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr
- NEW Audio Commentary With Film Music Historian Daniel Schweiger With Isolated Score Selections
- Trailers From Hell – Mick Garris On The Dead Zone
- Memories From The Dead Zone
- The Look Of The Dead Zone
- Visions Of The Dead Zone
- The Politics Of The Dead Zone
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
- Behind The Scenes Still Gallery
Available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory July 27th, 2021.