In the same year that David Cronenberg released what our own Dominic Griffin has described as “the platonic ideal of the body horror subgenre,” the Canadian director also offered up perhaps his least personal film. Whereas 1983’s Videodrome felt like the purest distillation of Cronenberg’s fixations and anxieties to date—merging flesh with machine and presaging the viral spread of lurid mass media and its damaging effects on culture and mind—The Dead Zone was the director’s first project that he did not also write.

Mentally burdened by his own heavy subject matter, Cronenberg has explained that he sought out the opportunity to tell someone else’s story as “a relief”—even if that relief came in the form of a narrative involving the supernatural, serial murder and a potential nuclear holocaust. An adaptation of Stephen King’s 1979 novel of the same name, The Dead Zone echoes a far more benign form of psychic abilities than those Cronenberg delved into with Scanners. But here, experimental pharmaceuticals and greed running amok aren’t to blame for the development of a protagonist’s extrasensory powers. Instead, as is King’s wont, the “second sight” featured here simply results from a good old-fashioned paranormal phenomenon.

Despite a clear divergence from the director’s established aesthetic and thematic sensibilities, one Cronenbergian hallmark remains intact in The Dead Zone: invasion. In early films like Shivers and Rabid, it was invasive parasites and disease that threatened to spread among the masses, a theme revisited through a more virtual transmission in Videodrome. Elsewhere in his ‘70s and early-‘80s films, the widespread threat to the public was more indirect, as in The Brood and Scanners, where specific individuals used psychokinetic powers in order to wreak physical havoc en masse with their psyches. In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is afflicted with invasive premonitions, which arise when he makes physical contact with another person. But rather than using his powers recklessly or sinisterly, endangering others in the process, Johnny takes great care to discreetly wield his clairvoyance in order to save lives.

Like many other characters in King’s work, Johnny is haunted by the past. Specifically, he’s tormented by years robbed from him through a cruel twist of fate. The film opens with Johnny as a lively, Poe-reciting schoolteacher, one very much in love with his colleague Sarah (Brooke Adams). He’s dealt a bad hand by a car wreck (a recurring plot device of King’s), which leaves him in a five-year coma. When he finally awakens a half-decade later, he’s faced with the disorienting reality that his mother (Jackie Burroughs) has become a religious nut who informs him that Sarah now “cleaves to another,” having moved on from the comatose Johnny to take a husband and give birth to a young son. However, with his life in shambles, Johnny discovers new purpose when, in the course of his physical therapy, he touches a nurse’s hand and foresees the woman’s daughter trapped in a fire, which leads to the girl’s rescue. Soon, he’s a minor celebrity as word spreads through the media of his newfound powers. He is called upon by a sheriff (Tom Skerritt) to catch a serial killer (Nicholas Campbell), and ultimately, he even stops the political rise of a huckster and madman (Martin Sheen) who would otherwise go on to one day push the button to bring about a nuclear apocalypse.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in less than two hours. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam abandoned King’s parallel story structure and instead made the screenplay episodic, describing it as a triptych, with its three acts essentially focusing the emergence of Johnny’s new powers, his role in capturing a serial killer and his eventual world-saving assassination attempt. Though this is the first instance of Cronenberg directing a movie he didn’t write, he did strongly influence the script’s development. When producers initially jettisoned Boam as screenwriter and tasked King with adapting his own novel, Cronenberg rejected King’s script as “needlessly brutal.” When Boam was eventually brought back, Cronenberg was instrumental to a series of revisions that streamlined the unwieldy story of King’s novel, even if the end result still feels somewhat disjointed in its jarring episodic shifts. Ultimately, even King would appreciate the changes made in the adaptation, claiming that it “improved and intensified the power of the narrative.”

The Dead Zone foreshadowed two shifts in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. First, an embrace of remakes and adaptations in service to big-budget Hollywood moviemaking, epitomized in his next (and most famous) project, 1986’s The Fly, and his taking on the challenge of adapting Burroughs’ once-seemingly unfilmable Naked Lunch in 1991. And second, The Dead Zone pointed to the eventual tempering of body horror in Cronenberg’s later work, where he began to favor tense and cynical dramas over grotesquery and gore. While this film may be one of the least emblematic of Cronenberg’s early vision, The Dead Zone further demonstrated his technical chops in telling a story that was not his, which breathed new life into his career.

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