CANNON MONTH 2: The Dead Zone (1983)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Dead Zone was not produced by Cannon but was released on video in the UK by Cannon / Warner Home Video.

After Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone was released in 1979, Lorimar Film Entertainment began developing a movie version with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (InnerspaceThe Lost BoysIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Lorimar lost the rights and that’s where producer Dino De Laurentiis comes in.

He disliked Boam’s screenplay and asked King himself to write a script that he found way too involved and complicated — did he ever read a King book? — and brought on David Cronenberg to direct. He originally worked with Andrzej Żuławski before bringing back Boam. Meanwhile, De Laurentiis hired producer Debra Hill to work with Cronenberg and Boam to get the movie ready to film.

Cronenberg had a vision: “King’s book is longer than it needed to be. The novel sprawls and it’s episodic. What I did was use that episodic quality, because I saw The Dead Zone as a triptych.” Those three parts would be Johnny Smith having his car accident and awakening from a coma, how he helped catch the Castle Rock Killer and the conclusion as he searches for Stillson, a politician who he believes will end the world. King is said to have said that Cronenberg and Boam improved and intensified the power of the original story.

As Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) drives home through a storm, he has a car accident that puts him in a coma for five years. As time passed, Sarah (Brooke Adams) married and had a child. As he undergoes therapy with neurologist Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), he discovers that physical contact can allow him to see into someone’s life. For example, he learns that Weizak’s mother is still alive and that a nurse’s child is in danger.

Sheriff George Bannerman (Tom Skeritt) asks Johnny to help him solve the case of the Castle Rock Killer, which leads him to a member of the police force — Deputy Frank Dodd (Nicholas Campbell) — being the real killer and Dodd’s mother (Colleen Dewhurst) shooting him, leaving him with a limp and pushing him to stay away from humanity.

After saving a child he is tutoring — the son of Roger Stewart (Anthony Zerbe) — Johnny discovers the Dead Zone,  a place where he can change the future. After meeting a politician named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) who Sarah and her husband volunteer for, he learns with a handshake that the future President will launch nukes that will destroy the world.

Johnny decides to kill Stillson before he can do so and as he shoots at the man, the politician uses Sarah’s son as a human shield. Johnny is killed by a bodyguard, but before he dies, he learns that Sarah still loves him and that he has changed the future.

The Dead Zone is — perhaps outside of Carrie — the best adaption of a King novel. Cujo is a spiritual sequel — at least the book is — as it’s set in Castle Rock and the spirit of Frank Dodd has gone into the dog and made it evil. Sheriff Bannerman is also in that story, but was played by Sandy Ward in the film. Other Castle Rock stories include Stand By MeThe Dark Half and Needful Things.

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