Color, 1983, 103 mins. 44 secs.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Martin Sheen, Anthony Zerbe, Nicholas Campbell, Colleen Dewhurst
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Koch Media (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Imprint, Via Vision (Blu-ray) (Australia R0 HD), Paramount (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Sanctuary (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)
/ WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Regarded at the time as a less personal step into commercial cinema for David Cronenberg after the surreal (and unprofitable) extremes of Videodrome, this austere Stephen King tale has since stood the test of time as both a sterling adaptation and a sharp, humanistic showcase for Cronenberg's strengths as a filmmaker. Though no one could have predicted it at the time, The Dead Zone marks a transition point from the body horrors of his 1970s work to the more psychological probings of his later masterpieces like Dead Ringers. Furthermore, this is his first work which pushes aside queasy sexuality and allows room for genuine human love and compassion, which later added resonance to The Fly. In short, here's a Cronenberg film even the squeamish can (mostly) enjoy.
Maine schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Walken, in top form) has plenty to live for; he enjoys his school-teaching job and is dating a warmhearted colleague, Sarah (Adams). Everything changes one night when an icy road accident with a milk tanker leaves Johnny in a coma for five years, after which he wakes up bewildered in an institution run by Dr. Sam Weizak (Lom). Sarah has married another man and time has marched on without poor Johnny, who seems to have developed a psychic gift whenever he comes into physical contact with another human being. First he witnesses a nurse's child trapped in a burning house; then he learns that Weizak's mother, presumably lost to the Nazis, is still alive and living nearby. The local sheriff (Skerritt) convinces Johnny to help out with a baffling serial killer who has preyed on young girls for the past two years. Johnny solves the mystery, but not without paying an unpleasant price along the way. Despite the intensity of his visions and headaches, Johnny attempts to construct some semblance of a normal life and takes pupils into his home, where he draws the attention of a wealthy businessman (Zerbe) whose son remains a withdrawn bookworm. Again Johnny's visions come into play, with unexpected results. Finally Johnny joins in a political rally, where he shakes the hand of a leading third party candidate named Greg Stillson (a terrifically venal Sheen) and makes an earth-shattering discovery.
Apart from one show-stopping scene involving a pair of scissors, The Dead Zone eschews gore and bodily fluids in favor of a mounting sense of terror at the potential consequences of Johnny's "gift." The story raises some difficult moral questions along the way and forces the viewer to confront some hard truths about human existence, with each story weaving into the larger story of a man ultimately coming to grips with his destiny. All of the performers turn in top notch work, with the excellent Adams turning another rare and winning lead performance and the late, sorely missed Herbert Lom shining once again in a supporting role. Composer Michael Kamen, who went on to mainstream success with the Lethal Weapon films among many others, tackles his first major studio project with a haunting score that simultaneously evokes Cronenberg's regular composer, Howard Shore, while remaining uniquely his own in the process. Also Cronenberg fans should get a kick out of looking for supporting players from Videodrome in the ensemble cast, including Peter Dvorsky and "Barry Convex" himself, Les Carlson. However, one major factor in the film's effectiveness has to be producer Debra Hill, here taking a break from her cycle of John Carpenter films and paving the way for a great Hollywood career in her own right.
In 2000, The Dead Zone bowed on DVD from Paramount in a very good (for the time) anamorphic transfer with a 5.1 English mix, optional English SDH subtitles, and the trailer as the sole extra. for DVD from blockbuster-minded Paramount, but thankfully it's gotten a first class transfer which does justice to a visually tricky film. The U.K. got its own DVD release in 2002, highlighted by an excellent audio commentary by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman that lays out the state of King adaptations at the time, the author's own intended casting ideas, the recurring themes and visual motifs of Cronenberg's work to that point, and lots more. In 2006, Paramount revisited the film for a greatly expanded U.S. special edition including four video featurettes: "Memories of the Dead Zone" (12m19s), "The Look of the Dead Zone" (9m25s), "Visions and Horror from the Dead Zone" (9m44s), and "The Politics of the Dead Zone" (11m34s) which feature Cronenberg, Adams, cinematographer Mark Irwin, author Douglas E. Winter, and editor Ronald Sanders dissecting the films from a number of angles including the pervading sense of loss (echoed by the premature deaths of many of its participants), the crafting of the austere New England look, and the mounting of a convincing political campaign that gives the film an echo of its '70s political paranoia predecessors.
For some reason it took a while for this one to hit Blu-ray, though an HD master was struck by Paramount and could be rented or purchased from major streaming services (or seen on occasional HD cable airings). In 2015, that same master (which was looking a bit tired and featured some obvious digital noise) turned up on Australian Blu-ray from Via Vision with little fanfare, followed by a covert special edition the following year with the U.K. commentary and U.S. DVD bonus features. More elaborate is the 2019 Digibook two-disc edition from German label Koch Media, which features a Blu-ray of the feature film and a DVD of bonus features. For that release the film has English 5.1 and 2.0 and German 2.0 audio options, the Jones and Newman commentary, German and English subtitles, the U.S. trailer, and a gallery on disc one. Disc two (the DVD) features the four Paramount featurettes, a smattering of promotional interviews (16m4s) from Japanese TV with Cronenberg, Sheen, and Hill, and a separate interview with Stephen King (48m2s) at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum tied to the release of his book, 11/22/63. In 2020, the old HD master was used for the film's first Blu-ray release in the U.S. as part of a budget-priced Stephen King 5-Movie Collection (along with both versions of Pet Sematary, The Stand, and Silver Bullet), which obviously left a lot of room for improvement.
Luckily fans didn't have to wait long when Scream Factory issued its own special edition on Blu-ray in 2021, which features a new, much-needed 2K scan from the camera negative. The framing adjust slightly here to the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio (versus the earlier 1.78:1 one) with some marginal framing adjustments, while the film now has a much more natural appearance without that swarming, artificial-looking noise anymore. The color timing isn't radically different but does fare better here with purer whites and slightly more balance flesh tones. Screen grabs in the body of this review are from the Scream Factory release, with comparisons to the older HD scan below. (Anyone who has the original VHS release from the mid-'80s will probably remember that presentation was completely open matte, resulting in a lot of extraneous headroom and accidentally turning Nicholas Campbell's big send-off into a nude scene.) This time the film comes outfitted with no less than four(!) new audio commentaries: Irwin in conversation with Michael Felsher, charting his prior work with Cronenberg up through this film with tons of stories about the production; Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr, offering a very different take than their prior Scream Factory tracks for Hammer titles by analyzing the film's tactics as a King adaptation (pruning away some material including the prologue and epilogue but staying very true to the source) and as a pivotal turning point in Cronenberg's career; Fangoria's Michael Gingold, going solo for a study of what he assesses as his favorite Stephen King movie (and Cronenberg movie) drawing on his extensive familiarity with horror film history and production to analyze the film's relationship to the book and its place in early '80s genre cinema, plus lots of production tidbits; and Daniel Schweiger focusing on Kamen's score with plentiful isolated music selections, including his own recollections of interacting with the composer before his death and biographical notes about his career and life before and after this major turning point. All four of the earlier Paramount DVD featurettes are included here along with the trailer, a Mick Garris "Trailers from Hell" presentation, two TV spots (both of which are more effective than the main trailer), and a behind the scenes gallery. However, you also get two new featurettes from Red Shirt Pictures starting off with "Sarah's Story" (10m37s), in which Adams recalls working on the film from being requested by Walken (whom she knew from Yale Rep) instead of auditioning, her positive experiences with Cronenberg, and the personal experiences she brought to the role. "Cold Visions" (20m32s) with production manager John M. Eckert covers his working process with Hill, the process that leads from script to screen, and the role Dino De Laurentiis played in getting this film off the ground (among many other King adaptations he would also unleash). Almost simultaneous with the Scream Factory disc is a very pricey Australian edition from Imprint, which wasn't available for comparison but features all of the extras from the German Koch release while also adding the Irwin interview "Look Past the Future," a "From Coma to Coda" assessment of Kamen's score by composer Edward Shearmur, a visual essay by Lee Gambin, and "Dino in the Dark: Adapting the King of Horror," a look at the producer's lengthy run of King adaptations for the following decade or so that also encompasses titles like Firestarter, Maximum Overdrive, and Cat's Eye.
Scream Factory (Blu-ray)
Koch Media (Blu-ray)
Updated review on July 20, 2021