Stephen King Horror-Thon: The Dead Zone (1983)
1983 saw the release of three different Stephen King cinematic adaptations. Sandwiched between one movie about a rampaging killer St. Bernard dog and another movie about a rampaging killer car is a well-paced horror-thriller featuring a killer performance from the great Christopher Walken.
The Dead Zone follows a school teacher named Johnny (played by Walken) who gets into a car accident that leaves him in a comatose state. When he wakes up from the coma five years later, he quickly realizes that he’s gained psychic abilities. Through physical contact, Johnny is able to see a person’s darkest secrets (Unbreakable-style)– which sometimes involves visions of the future.
When news of Johnny’s gifts spreads, he’s approached by the local sheriff to assist with solving a case involving a serial murderer. But Johnny’s visions begin taking an emotional toll on him, and he struggles with reconciling the potential dangers of his ability with his responsibilities to use it for good. All the while, Johnny rekindles his relationship with a now-married school teacher whom he’d begun courting before his car accident.
When The Dead Zone hit theaters in 1983, Roger Ebert hailed the horror-thriller as being the best film adaptation up to that point, edging out the likes of Carrie, The Shining, Creepshow, and Cujo. Despite being directed by David Cronenberg (Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly), The Dead Zone doesn’t fall into the body horror genre– nor does it feature any of the visceral horror associated with the genre.
In fact, The Dead Zone is tonally much more mystery/thriller than it is horror, favoring a sense of lingering dread over scares. A major point of praise for The Dead Zone is how easily the film makes it to buy into its abstract supernatural setup. Walken’s character is three-dimensional and grounded in his struggle in trying to figure out what to do with his new power. So by the time Johnny is presented with the incredible, high-stakes decision of the final act (involving a shady politician played by an expectedly sharp Martin Sheen), his struggle is profound and thrilling.
The Dead Zone remains one of the most thrilling Stephen King adaptation to dates– and one that packs the most thrilling punch without excessive gore or violence.