The Dead Zone Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Jeffrey Boam (based on the novel by Stephen King)
1983, 104 minutes, Rated R
Released on July 27th, 2021
Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith
Brooke Adams as Sarah Bracknell
Herbert Lom as Dr. Sam Weizak
Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson
Tom Skeritt as Sheriff Bannerman
Colleen Dewhurst as Henrietta Dodd
Nicholas Campbell as Frank Dodd
Schoolteacher Johnny Smith awakens from a five-year coma only to learn his life has been turned upside down. His job is gone, his body frail and his girlfriend Sarah has married another man and now has a child. Topping everything else, Johnny has developed the power of second sight. When he makes physical contact with someone, he has a vision of their future. It begins with the touch of a nurse, who we learn has a daughter caught in a burning house. He is also able to learn that his doctor’s long-lost mother survived the Holocaust and is still alive. He tries to keep a low profile but is reluctantly recruited by the local police to help catch a serial killer. Johnny later shakes hands with a political candidate and suffers his most horrifying vision yet, prompting him to ask whether he can only see the future, or if can he also change it?
The Dead Zone is a tale of heartache and loss and is more of a dark love story than an outright horror film, although there are certainly some moments that will make you squirm. Based on the novel by Stephen King (Creepshow) and adapted for the screen by the late, great Jeffrey Boam (The Lost Boys), the script adheres closely to the book but with a streamlined approach that eliminates a subplot or two. For example, the novel opens with Johnny as a child suffering a blow to the head, prompting his first vision of danger to come. This scene was shot, but later dropped in order to meet the character as an adult just before his accident. In a parallel narrative, the book also traces the backstory of presidential hopeful Greg Stillson that reveals his darker nature. The film saves his introduction until the third act where he crosses paths with our protagonist.
Johnny Smith is a tragic figure who wants to live a normal life and regain the ability to make physical contact with other people without being a harbinger of doom. He has been cheated out of five years and is understandably angry, as the life he once knew is over. He sees his new ability more as a curse than a gift, as he receives daily requests in the mail from countless people asking for his insight. One bright spot arrives with Sarah’s visit offering closure to their relationship. Sometime later, just as Johnny settles into a comfortable routine, he is forced to act on knowledge of a pending global disaster and take drastic steps to prevent Armageddon.
Jeffrey Boam’s script unfolds as a series of vignettes chronicling key periods in Johnny’s post-coma life. Director David Cronenberg (The Fly, 1986) and producer Debra Hill (Escape from New York) worked closely with the screenwriter to finesse an already great story into something even more compelling. The Dead Zone is not your typical Cronenberg film, or Stephen King story for that matter, but the pairing of these artists builds to something special. As a visionary filmmaker, Cronenberg surrounds himself with longtime collaborators, including cinematographer Mark Irwin (The Blob, 1988), production designer Carol Spier (ll.22.63) and editor Ronald Sanders (Firestarter). Composer Michael Kamen (Event Horizon) has written a mournful score that perfectly fits the picture’s bleak tone.
The film also benefits from some spectacular casting starting with Christopher Walken (The Addiction) as Johnny Smith, a lonely and isolated man caught in a world where it pains him to touch those around him. Walken delivers a hauntingly restrained performance free from many of the quirks that contemporary audiences expect from him. Brooke Adams (The Unborn) co-stars as Sarah, and is immediately likable and her character’s regret of not waiting longer for Johnny to awake is clear from the moment she sees her old flame alert at the rehab clinic. These two actors share great onscreen chemistry and viewers want them to end up together even as they acknowledge it is too late.
Herbert Lom (The Phantom of the Opera, 1962) co-stars as the friendly voice of reason, Dr. Sam Weizak. He and Walken play well off each other and their scenes are an early highlight. Tom Skeritt (Poltergeist III) is the earnest Sheriff Bannerman, desperate to solve a string of murders and is willing to pursue unconventional means seeking help from Johnny. Walken does a lot of the heavy lifting, but Martin Sheen (The Believers) holds his own as the zealous Greg Stillson, a power-hungry politician who fights dirty and won’t let anyone step in his way. In the small but pivotal roles of Frank Dodd and his overbearing mother Henrietta, Nicholas Campbell (The Brood) and Colleen Dewhurst (When a Stranger Calls) leave a lasting impression in one of the film’s most startling scenes.
The Dead Zone works on many levels and is frequently ranked high on the list of many “Best Stephen King Adaptations”. With Johnny Smith, King creates a tragic figure overwhelmed by human contact and empathy. Walken’s performance is not to be missed, as it is truly one of his best. The film has so far evaded the popular wave of Hollywood remakes, but did spawn a successful TV series (2002-2007) starring Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny.
Video and Audio:
The original camera negative has received a 4K scan and stunning restoration that outshines all previous releases. Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, picture quality has never been sharper. Standout moments include the numerous wintery snow scenes that reflect our hero’s isolation. Colors are vibrant, particularly the strategic placement of red in Sarah’s wardrobe. Black levels are rock-solid and small-object detail is abundant in hair and fabrics.
The original theatrical DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track gets the job done with well-balanced dialogue levels and music cues. An expanded DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix opens the audio to some nice activity in the rear channels, particularly during Johnny’s visions. Both tracks have been restored and are free from hiss, pops or other distortion.
Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
There are four newly-recorded audio commentaries on this Collector’s Edition, each loaded with production stories, behind-the-scenes information and lots of interesting trivia. Sadly, David Cronenberg is noticeably absent, as he is actively in pre-production on his next feature, Crimes of the Future. So, while it’s a drag he was unavailable to contribute, we can look forward to an all-new film from him in the coming year.
The first commentary pairs cinematographer Mark Irwin with moderator Michael Felsher and the conversation is highly informative and entertaining. Felsher keeps things moving with his questions and wisely steps back to allow Irwin plenty of time to answer in full. The track is largely anecdotal, but some technical information is shared as the conversation deepens.
Commentary number two is another winner, this one featuring film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. These guys are consistently entertaining with their deep-dive analysis of classic cinema and their inclusion here is quite welcome. We get sample readings from early script drafts and the changes Cronenberg made. Additionally, we are guided through the actual production, from prep to casting to shooting locations and theatrical release.
The always-welcome Michael Gingold provides commentary number three and while there is an overlap of some information from the previous tracks, he manages to keep his talk on point and full of insight. The focus here is largely on the differences between the original novel and the finished film. Gingold includes some humorous personal asides as he keeps the information flowing at a steady clip that never lags.
Next up is the isolated score with analysis by film music historian Daniel Schweiger, providing biographical information on composer Michael Kamen and the influences that inspired the haunting soundtrack. There are occasional gaps of silence between music selections and commentary, but is also well worth a listen.
The lovely Brooke Adams sits for the segment Sarah’s Story (2021, 11 minutes) in which she discusses her family’s strong ties to theatre. She singles out a production in which she played opposite Walken and how this led to him recommending her for the role in this film. She goes on to share her thoughts on her character and being directed by Cronenberg. She also has praise for her co-stars.
Cold Visions: Producing The Dead Zone (2021, 21 minutes) finds production manager John M. Eckert and associate producer Jeffrey Chernov (recorded separately) sharing their memories of working with Debra Hill and Cronenberg and how the production came together. They talk about the cast – particularly Walken and Sheen – and the construction of the gazebo and how it became a part of the town. Other topics include shooting the fire scene and how they accomplished the sequence of the doomed kids playing on a frozen lake.
Trailers from Hell (2021, 2 minutes) features director Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers, These Evil Things We Do: The Mick Garris Collection) offering his insight to the film in a briskly paced audio commentary.
The archival featurette Memories from The Dead Zone (2006, 12 minutes) offers interviews with David Cronenberg, Brooke Adams and editor Ronald Sanders who discuss the history of the production. King biographer Douglas Winter talks about the author’s writing process and the film’s adaptation of the novel.
The Look of The Dead Zone (2006, 9 minutes) is another holdover featuring Douglas Winter, who points out this story marks the first appearance of King’s fictional town of Castle Rock. Cronenberg and Mark Irwin talk about the shooting conditions and the goal of giving the picture a Norman Rockwell appearance. They go on to discuss location shooting – including the striking haunted tunnel – the production design, the color palette and wardrobe selection of the characters.
In Visions and Horror from The Dead Zone (2006, 10 minutes), Cronenberg, Sanders and Irwin return to talk about the abandoned prologue featuring young Johnny. They also speak of designing specific looks of the visions and how they got Walken’s reaction shots. There is also discussion of the shocking sequence featuring Frank Dodd’s death.
The Politics of The Dead Zone (2006, 12 minutes) opens with archival footage of a Martin Sheen interview from the time of release. Cronenberg, and Douglas Winter speak of the film’s themes of loss and sorrow and offer a cautious defense of a character’s act of attempted assassination. Brooke Adams appears briefly and there is an observance of the number of cast and crew members who have passed away.
A theatrical trailer is paired with two TV spots.
A behind-the-scenes photo gallery plays as a slide show (13 minutes) with more than one hundred images.
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