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The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone, Special Collector’s Edition, on DVD

David Cronenberg’s take on Stephen King’s novel eschews the director’s legendary (at that time)  weirdness and gore and instead turns out to be an intelligent and engrossing film full of atmosphere and excellent performances.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken, in a rich and sensitive performance), is a teacher in small town New England. He’s in love with a nice girl (Brooke Adams) and everything looks rosy – until a traffic accident puts him into a coma for five years.

When he awakes, everything has changed. His girl is married and a mother, and Johnny discovers that he has been blessed – or cursed – with a psychic ability that lets him see the future of a person he touches. This ability helps him solve a series of murders, and save the life of a young boy, the latter incident making him realize that he can not only see the future, but has the ability to change it.

This gives him a golden opportunity to do some good for the human race, but also forces him into a dilemma: he can prevent a mad, megalomaniacal (Martin Sheen – and how’s that for typecasting?) politician before he can do his damage, but to do so means he must commit murder.

What would you do? It’s a tough question, and Smith himself asks it of his doctor (Herbert Lom), a survivor of World War II: if he could have, would he have killed Hitler earlier in his life, to prevent his rise to power?

As it turns out, there’s more than one way to skin a cat – or flay a whacko politico – as the film’s climax proves.

The Dead Zone is surprisingly free of gore, and in fact there’s very little “conventional” horror movie “boo!” stuff in it. There’s really only one fairly gross scene, and it’s over quickly and not dwelled upon (it’s also quite appropriate). Instead, the film is more of a psychological drama, a character study of Johnny Smith, taking us inside his head and his heart and making us really sympathize with him.

Cronenberg’s direction is restrained and intimate, and Walken’s Johnny is a marvellously textured character. And what a supporting cast! Also along for the ride are Tom Skerritt, Colleen Dewhurst and Anthony Zerbe, all of whom bring credible acting abilities to their (usually fairly small) roles.

I have no idea how closely Cronenberg’s Dead Zone follows King’s, since I haven’t read the book. But it stands on its own beautifully, a smart and serious movie that’ll leave you thinking.

The DVD is billed as a special collector’s edition, and that usually means you get more than just the flick itself. And you do: besides an anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible) video transfer that for the most part is sharp and clean, with beautiful depth of color, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that’s also pretty good, you get a series of short documentaries on the film. These bring some cast and crew members (and a historian to pontificate) back to remember their contributions as well as the film overall, and they’re pretty interesting, though by no means are they reason to buy the DVD on their own.

But the movie itself is definitely worth a view!

The Dead Zone, from Paramount Home Entertainment
103 min. anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Martin Sheen
Produced by Debra Hill
Written by Jeffrey Boam, Directed by David Cronenberg

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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