Visions of America: The Political Horrors of David Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone”

“My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions,” writes Stephen King in his superb retrospective On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel?” King worked backwards from there, arriving at the supernatural premise of a man granted dark visions of the future. Such a premise could have easily supported a novel without treading into such murky political waters, but that was where King’s interest lay, and what the story marches toward with an air of grim inevitability.

In David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983), Johnny Smith, portrayed by Christopher Walken, is an All-American romantic figure, a gangly schoolteacher introduced enthusiastically assigning his class to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow before taking his sweetheart on a date to the fair. He’s the polar opposite of someone we’d expect to end up plotting to assassinate a politician. After crashing his car on his way home from date, he spends the next five years in a coma. When he wakes, he has the ability to tell someone’s future from a simple touch. It’s a fitting companion piece to one of his most iconic performances, that of the damaged Vietnam vet in The Deer Hunter (1978). Both are vibrant figures of Americana transformed by tragedy into something isolated and unrecognizable.

Greg Stillson, the villain in the both the novel and film, is an All-American figure of a different stripe. Like Johnny Smith, he too has visions of the future; Stillson’s vision is that he is going to be President of the United States. Johnny’s vision, glimpsed when he shakes Stillson’s hand at a campaign rally, is one of Stillson igniting a nuclear war. After his vision of Stillson, Johnny turns to his neurologist, Dr. Wiezak, as a voice of reason, asking if he would go back and kill Hitler. Wiezak’s response is as direct as it is paradoxical: “I love people. Therefore I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch.” And Johnny has his own conscience pushing him forward as well; earlier in the film, receiving a vision of a murder on his quest to catch a serial killer, Johnny stammers to the sheriff, “I stood there, I did nothing.” It may be too much for him to stand and do nothing again. All these rationalizing and humanizing elements serve to make the audience sympathize with Johnny. We only see his visions, and because Johnny seems to be a decent guy and Stillson a raving madman, we trust what he sees.

Still, in the novel King can’t quite bring himself to have Johnny follow through with assassinating Stillson. When Johnny attempts to shoot Stillson, he misses. But in doing so, Johnny causes Stillson to reveal his cowardice by shielding himself behind an infant. In his 1981 dissection of the horror genre in popular fiction, Danse Macabre, King talks of the psychic scarring left upon the nation by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, a topic he revisited in his 2011 novel 11/22/63, in which time travelers attempt to stop the assassination of JFK. In On Writing, King says of The Dead Zone, “Ever since John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, the great American bogeyman has been the guy with the rifle in a high place. I wanted to make this guy into the reader’s friend,” admitting that “the situation had an edgy, outlaw feel to it that appealed to me.” King is able to have his cake and eat it too, ending Stillson’s reign of terror before it happens, but without completely invoking the specter of assassination. King tries to have it both ways, but he maybe tips his hand a bit in On Writing when he mentions that “sometimes the good guy tries to turn away from doing the right thing, as Johnny Smith does.”

The film follows a similar sequence of events – Johnny arrives at the film’s climax intending to kill Stillson, but on catching a glimpse of his old girlfriend at the rally, his resolve falters for a moment and he misses. As in the novel, Sillson shields himself behind an infant. The film, however, gives the audience some additional satisfaction. In the novel, Johnny’s success is manifested by his visions of Armageddon ceasing, but in the film, he gets an additional vision of Stillson meeting a bloody end.

A still from “The Dead Zone.”

Cronenberg was an interesting choice for the material. Coming on the heels of his hallucinatory early masterpiece Videodrome (1983), The Dead Zone was his most mainstream affair yet (the nervy, intense scoring of essential partner Howard Shore is even replaced by the more traditional, but no less talented Michael Kamen). Still, while the film features little of Cronenberg’s at-the-time trademark bursts of sci-fi tinged gore, he does bring a fleshy intensity to Johnny’s visions. They don’t hazily fade in as dream sequences in film so often do; they burst into the frame, with Walken placed into them not by fancy optical effects, but simply by being there as his awful visions take place, most startlingly in a scene when he witnesses a little girl’s bedroom burning down, and he’s right there in the burning bed.

The Dead Zone is an episodic film, and a strange one. It doesn’t fit conventional notions of plot structure, picking up plot threads and following them through to their conclusion before making its way to another (it’s no surprise that the novel was adapted a second time as a network TV series, with Johnny Smith solving mysteries à la Scooby Doo). And despite coming from two canonical horror masters, the film’s halting, metaphysical plot does not easily fit within the boundaries of the horror movie. Its uncomfortable political terrors, though, are enough to keep one awake at night as much as any horror movie, giving it a legacy that endures as long as we live in a world that can be upended in an instant by a power hungry demagogue, or a man with a rifle in a high place.

“Michael James Roberson is a film enthusiast living in Somerville, Massachusetts. He co-hosts Nameless Cults, a podcast specializing in horror and weird fiction.”

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