The Dead Zone (film)

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The Dead Zone
The Dead Zone.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDavid Cronenberg
Produced byDebra Hill[1]
Screenplay byJeffrey Boam
Based onThe Dead Zone
by Stephen King
Music byMichael Kamen
CinematographyMark Irwin
Edited byRonald Sanders
Distributed byParamount Pictures
(North America)
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
Release date
  • October 21, 1983 (1983-10-21)
Running time
103 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States[1]
Budget$7.1 million[2] or $10 million[1]
Box office$16.3 million[2] or $20.8 million[3]

The Dead Zone is a 1983 American science fiction thriller film directed by David Cronenberg. The screenplay, by Jeffrey Boam, is based on the 1979 novel of the same name by Stephen King. The film stars Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Martin Sheen, Anthony Zerbe and Colleen Dewhurst. Walken plays a schoolteacher, Johnny Smith, who awakens from a coma to find he has psychic powers. The film received positive reviews. The novel also inspired a television series of the same name in the early 2000s, starring Anthony Michael Hall, the 2-hour pilot episode of which borrowed some ideas and changes used in the 1983 film.

In the novel, the phrase "dead zone" refers to the part of Johnny Smith's brain that is damaged beyond repair, resulting in his dormant psychic potential awakening. When some information in Johnny's visions is beyond his perception, he considers that information as existing "in the dead zone." In the movie adaptation starring Christopher Walken, the phrase "dead zone" refers to blind spots existing in his precognitive visions which represent that the future is not set and can be altered.


In the town of Castle Rock, New Hampshire, John Smith, a young schoolteacher, is in love with his colleague Sarah Bracknell. After having a headache following a ride on a roller coaster, Johnny politely declines when Sarah asks if he wants to spend the night with her. As he drives home through stormy weather, he has a car accident that leaves him in a coma. He awakens under the care of neurologist Dr. Sam Weizak and finds that five years have passed. His mother has become deeply religious following his injuries and is now weak in health herself. Sarah is now married and has a 10-month old child, Dennis.

Johnny soon discovers he now has the psychic ability to learn aspects of a person's life through physical contact with them. Touching a nurse's hand, he has a vision of her daughter trapped in their home which is on fire. Thanks to this warning, the nurse is able to alert the fire department and save her child. Later, Johnny sees that Weizak's mother, long thought to have died during World War II, is still alive, a fact the doctor later confirms for himself. Weizak concludes Johnny has unlocked a very new human ability "or a very old one." As the news media becomes interested in Johnny's predictions, he attempts to dissuade their interest by telling them he is not a psychic and not offering such services, he simply has "a feeling" sometimes when he touches people. An arrogant reporter demands a demonstration. When Johnny reveals knowledge that the reporter's sister committed suicide, the man becomes frightened and angry. Seeing the confrontation on the news, Johnny's mother has a heart attack. She then dies when Johnny visits in the hospital. He moves in with his father afterward.

Some time later, Johnny is asked by Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman for help with a series of murders by a serial killer, believing someone with a "gift" from God such as psychic abilities should use them to help. Johnny declines, not seeing his power as a gift and wishing to be left alone. Later, Sarah visits with her infant son Dennis. While the boy sleeps, she and Johnny consummate their relationship. After they share dinner with Johnny's father, he asks her before she leaves, "Am I gonna see you again?" She replies, "Not like today."

Having a change of heart about the murders, Johnny journeys to Castle Rock to help Bannerman. As he examines a new crime scene, a vision reveals the killer is Bannerman's deputy Frank Dodd. Before they can arrest him, Dodd kills himself. Johnny is then shot and wounded by Dodd's mother, who knew of her son's crimes and thinks Johnny is the devil. She in turn is killed by Bannerman.

A disillusioned Johnny, now barely able to walk, moves away and attempts to live a more isolated life. Weizak visits him and believes his health is failing as his power increases, as if it is draining his life. Johnny takes on tutoring jobs for children, working from home until a wealthy man named Roger Stuart implores him to tutor his son, Chris. The tutoring goes well and Johnny comes to care for the boy. One day, he has a vision of Chris and two other boys falling through the ice of a local pond during hockey practice and drowning. He implores Stuart, who organized and financed the team, to cancel the practice. When Chris says he believes Johnny, Stuart seemingly concedes but fires the tutor. Stuart later reveals to his son that he lied to Johnny and will not cancel practice. Chris insists on staying home anyway, believing Johnny, and Stuart attends practice without him. The other two boys indeed fall through the ice and drown, much to Stuart's shock.

Later on, Johnny attends a rally for Greg Stillson, a superficially charismatic third-party candidate for the United States Senate, for whom Sarah and her husband volunteer. (Stillson is, in actuality, a ruthless demagogue.) Johnny shakes Stillson's hand and has a vision of his future. He sees Stillson becoming President of the United States and then, after dreaming that God has spoken to him, ordering a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, resulting in a nuclear holocaust.

Johnny seeks out Weizak's advice, asking if the doctor would have killed Adolf Hitler before his rise to power if he had the chance, knowing in advance the atrocities Nazi Germany would commit. Weizak replies that he would have had no choice but to kill him in order to save lives and prevent harm. Johnny brings up the fact that stopping Hitler could result in sacrificing one's own life in the process, but Weizak believes such sacrifice would be necessary. Johnny also reveals that visions of the future include a blind spot, a "dead zone," and that he saw such a dead zone when he foresaw young Chris's death. After learning that Chris's death was prevented after Johnny's vision, Weizak hypothesizes the dead zone is an indicator that the future is not set and can be altered.

Johnny leaves Sarah a letter, telling her that what he is about to do will cost him his life, but that it will be a sacrifice he is willing to make. He takes position in a balcony at Stillson's next rally, where Sarah and her family are in attendance, and takes aim at the politician. Johnny's shot misses and Stillson instinctively grabs Sarah's baby, holding him up as a human shield. Johnny refuses to risk shooting the child. Meanwhile, a photographer snaps a picture of Stillson holding Dennis. Sarah gets her baby back and Johnny attempts to kill Stillson again but is shot down by his security and falls from the balcony. Confronted by an angry Stillson, Johnny grabs his hand. He now foresees Stillson's reputation and political ambitions ruined by the published photograph of his cowardly act of using a child as a shield, which leads the despondent politician to commit suicide.

As Stillson leaves to search for the photographer, Johnny is satisfied he has prevented a nuclear apocalypse. Sarah embraces him and tells him she loves him as he dies.




After King's novel The Dead Zone was released in 1979, Lorimar Film Entertainment began developing a film adaptation. Producer Carol Baum gave the book to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam and asked him to write a screenplay. "I saw it had great possibilities and agreed to do it," Boam said.[4] He developed a script with director Stanley Donen, who left the project before the film had reached production at Lorimar.[5] Lorimar eventually closed its film division after a series of box office failures, and soon after, producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights to The Dead Zone. He initially disliked Boam's screenplay and asked King to adapt his own novel.[4][6] De Laurentiis then reportedly rejected King's script as "involved and convoluted";[7] however, David Cronenberg, who ultimately directed the film, said that he was the one who decided not to use the script, finding it "needlessly brutal".[4] De Laurentiis rejected a second script by Andrzej Żuławski, eventually returning to Boam ( The film was finally on track to be made when De Laurentiis hired producer Debra Hill to work with Cronenberg and Boam.[4]

Boam abandoned King's parallel story structure for The Dead Zone's screenplay, turning the plot into separate episodes. Boam told writer Tim Lucas in 1983, "King's book is longer than it needed to be. The novel sprawls and it's episodic. What I did was use that episodic quality, because I saw The Dead Zone as a triptych."[4] His script was revised and condensed four times by Cronenberg, who eliminated large portions of the novel's story,[8] including plot points about Johnny Smith having a brain tumor.[4] Cronenberg, Boam, and Hill had script meetings to revise the screenplay page by page. Boam's "triptych" in the screenplay surrounds three acts: the introduction of Johnny Smith before his car accident and after he awakes from a coma, a story about Smith assisting a sheriff in tracking down the Castle Rock Killer, and finally Johnny deciding to confront the politician Stillson. Boam said he enjoyed writing character development for Smith, having him struggle with the responsibility of his psychic abilities, and ultimately giving up his life for the greater good. "It was this theme that made me like the book, and I particularly enjoyed discovering it in what was essentially a genre piece, a work of exploitation," he said. In Boam's first draft of the screenplay, Johnny does not die at the end, but rather has a vision about the Castle Rock Killer, who is still alive and escaped from prison. Cronenberg insisted that this "trick ending" be revised. Boam submitted the final draft of the screenplay on November 8, 1982.[4]

King is reported to have told Cronenberg that the changes the director and Boam made to the story "improved and intensified the power of the narrative."[7]

Before Christopher Walken was cast as Johnny Smith, Bill Murray was considered for the role[9] as it was King's first choice.[10] Cronenberg initially wanted Nicholas Campbell to portray Johnny, but the director wound up casting him as the Castle Rock Killer instead.[11] Cronenberg also wanted Hal Holbrook to portray Sheriff Bannerman but De Laurentiis objected.[11]

In addition to Donen, both John Badham and Michael Cimino were also considered to direct.[12]


Shooting started in early January 1983[13] and took place in the Greater Toronto Area and the Regional Municipality of Niagara of Cronenberg's native Ontario, Canada. The so-called Screaming Tunnel, located in nearby Niagara Falls, Ontario, was also used as the backdrop for one scene. The gazebo was built by the film crew and donated to Niagara-on-the-Lake.[1]

According to a David Cronenberg interview on the DVD, The Dead Zone was filmed during a relentless deep freeze in southern Ontario which lasted for weeks, creating an authentic atmosphere of subzero temperatures and icy snow-packed terrain, which made for great natural shooting locations, in spite of it being almost too cold for cast and crew to tolerate at times. Canada's Wonderland, a theme park which is 30 km north of Toronto's city limits, was also used as a filming location.


The music soundtrack, composed by Michael Kamen, was recorded by The National Philharmonic Orchestra, London at the famous EMI Abbey Road Studios. Michael Kamen conducted the recording sessions; the orchestra was contracted and led by Sidney Sax. This is the only Cronenberg film since The Brood (1979) for which Howard Shore was not composer.

Reception and influence[edit]

The Dead Zone received very positive reviews on release.[1] It holds a 91% approval rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, which catalogs both contemporary and modern reviews from 43 critics. The site's consensus reads, "The Dead Zone combines taut direction from David Cronenberg and a rich performance from Christopher Walken to create one of the strongest Stephen King adaptations."[14]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars, describing The Dead Zone as by far the best of the half-a-dozen cinematic adaptations of King's novels to that date.[15] He praised Cronenberg's direction for successfully weaving the supernatural into the everyday, and noted believable performances by the entire cast, especially Walken: "Walken does such a good job of portraying Johnny Smith, the man with the strange gift, that we forget this is science fiction or fantasy or whatever and just accept it as this guy's story." Janet Maslin of The New York Times referred to the film as "a well-acted drama more eerie than terrifying, more rooted in the occult than in sheer horror."[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "The Dead Zone (1983)". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2018-01-19.
  2. ^ a b De Laurentiis PRODUCER'S PICTURE DARKENS: KNOEDELSEDER, WILLIAM K, Jr. Los Angeles Times 30 Aug 1987: 1.
  3. ^ "The Dead Zone". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2018-01-19.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Lucas, Tim (Dec 1983 – Jan 1984). "The Dead Zone". Cinefantastique. 14 (2): 24–35.
  5. ^ Ferrante, A.C. (May 1, 2013). "Exclusive Interview: The Last Crusade of Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam". Assignment X/EON Magazine. Midnight Productions, Inc.
  6. ^ Collings, Michael R. (2008-08-30). The Films of Stephen King. Borgo Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0893709846.
  7. ^ a b Wiater, Stanley; Golden, Christopher; Wagner, Iank (May 2001). The Stephen King Universe: The Guide to the Worlds of the King of Horror. Renaissance Books. p. 139. ISBN 1580631606.
  8. ^ Magistrate, Tony (2003). "Defining Heroic Codes of Survival". Hollywood's Stephen King. New York City: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 120. ISBN 0312293216.
  9. ^ Locke, Greg W. (26 August 2011). "The Top 25 Roles Bill Murray Didn't Take". Archived from the original on 25 November 2011. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  10. ^ Evans, Bradford (17 February 2011). "The Lost Roles of Bill Murray". Archived from the original on 20 May 2015. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  11. ^ a b Mell, Eila (2015). Casting Might-Have-Beens: A Film by Film Directory of Actors Considered for Roles Given to Others. McFarland. ISBN 9781476609768.pages 66-67
  12. ^ Lambie, Ryan (21 February 2015). "Why The Dead Zone Is One of the Best Stephen King Films". Den of Geek. Retrieved 2 July 2019.
  13. ^ Lucas, p. 24
  14. ^ "The Dead Zone". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2014-02-01.
  15. ^ Ebert, Roger (26 October 1983). "The Dead Zone". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  16. ^ Maslin, Janet (21 October 1983). "FILM: 'DEAD ZONE,' FROM KING NOVEL". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 September 2016.

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