[Blu-ray Review] Scream Factory Stares Into the Depths of 'The Dead Zone' with Excellent Collector's Edition
“I don’t think it’s like any Stephen King story and I don’t think it’s like any David Cronenberg story…”
…That’s star Brooke Adams in her interview “Sarah’s Story” on Scream Factory’s new Collector’s Edition of The Dead Zone, and she couldn’t be more right.
Directed by David Cronenberg (Scanners, The Fly) and based on the novel from Stephen King with a script by Jeffrey Boam (The Lost Boys), The Dead Zone stars Christopher Walken as an English professor named Johnny who suffers a tragic accident that leaves him in a coma for five years. When he wakes up, the love of his life, Sarah (Brooke Adams), has moved on, he’s lost his job, and he also just happens to now have the ability to see horrible events in a person’s future when he touches their hand. As you do. His newfound power making him an instant outcast, Johnny struggles to cope with it all, and the danger that comes with knowing who the bad people really are.
As various interviews and commentaries on the disc discuss, Cronenberg was generally seen as the “Body Horror” guy and not a director taken all that seriously by Hollywood, and The Dead Zone was his first step outside of horror and into something more “respected” by those outside the genre. Us horror fans always knew he was a brilliant director, but The Dead Zone was that film that finally woke the rest of the public up to what Cronenberg could do and blew minds Scanners style.
It’s wildly different than anything else he had done at the time.
For one, The Dead Zone is a love story through and through, putting on full display the romanticism that is at the heart of so much of Cronenberg and King’s work, but often overshadowed by elements of horror. Opening on sequences of Johnny and Sarah living their life and excited for a future together, it’s your classic, tragic love story, with Johnny having a chance to stay the night with Sarah, and deciding instead to drive home, resulting in a horrible crash (a scene which cinematographer Mark Irwin describes in great detail during his commentary). In her interview, Adams mentions how she actually knew Walken quite well, and he requested she play the part of Sarah. A great decision, because their chemistry is perfect, with both bringing a sadness to their parts that expresses that pain of what fate took from them. Walken especially carries an aura of a man wrought with grief and frustration, and per usual, he’s utterly magnetic and impossible to look away from.
Irwin at one point says King wanted Bill Murray to play Johnny, and as much as I enjoy Murray’s work, hell no. Walken was born to play this role. Period.
The Dead Zone is a tale of two halves, one of a man struggling with the terrible power bestowed upon him, and the other the devastation of what that power truly means for him and the people he loves. Accentuated by Michael Kamen’s heartfelt yet mysterious score, the film taps into the popular “psychic helping cops” genre of the time, with Walken helping Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) to investigate a string of murders. The segment is dark, chilling, and presents a different kind of body horror: the horror of the mind, and what Johnny is forced to see. Excellent makeup design portrays an ever so slight decline in Johnny’s appearance as time goes on. As Dr. Steve Haberman says during his commentary, “Walken’s eyes portray the Dead Zone itself”. It’s the reason Walken walks around in a dark coat, hair wild, looking like a goddamn vampire. He is an outcast by a town that fears him.
It’s the second half of The Dead Zone that feels the most Cronenbergian, with Johnny struggling with philosophical questions in light of straight-up psychotic presidential hopeful Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen looking wide-eyed and coked up), a disturbing look at what can happen when the people give power to a true psychopath that feels all too relevant to today. The Dead Zone packs a lot in with a runtime of just a hundred minutes, but Cronenberg and Boam don’t waste a second, with a script that gets us deep and personal into the tortured mind of Johnny.
Part of what makes The Dead Zone so different from Cronenberg’s previous work is that, despite the usual heavy dose of philosophy—which he is a master at—this isn’t the jaw-dropping, cringe-worthy nightmare cinema that he had been known for. As Irwin mentions, with this being a King adaptation, this was the first film where Cronenberg wasn’t entirely in charge, and that shows, though in a way that pairs Cronenberg and King’s sentiments nicely. The Dead Zone is more subtle in its horror, letting us imagine the worst rather than being overt about it, yet with imagery such as a bizarre suicide by scissors that gives the film that Cronenberg vibe.
Unlike the grimmer work of his past—and The Dead Zone is still incredibly grim—this is also one of Cronenberg’s more moving works, second only to The Fly. Part murder mystery, part political thriller, The Dead Zone is one of the more profound works from Cronenberg and King, posing challenging discussions of fate vs the false prophecies of madmen that make this one of the more captivating works from both creators.
You don’t need a psychic to tell you that if you’re a fan of The Dead Zone, you’re going to be thrilled with Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition. Not only does the new 4K scan look incredible and have you feeling the heat of that frightening fire scene, but commentaries are one of the most valuable features for collectors, and this disc has four new ones, each with their own unique angle. Irwin’s provides a ton of insight into the production of the film, Haberman and Constantine Nasr get deep into elements of Cronenberg’s style/career, and though his is a little less talkative, former Fangoria Editor in Chief Michael Gingold’s digs deep into the themes of the film. And for budding film composers, film music historian Daniel Schweiger spends the entire time discussing the score and how it works to inform the scene, a must watch for those looking to compose for film. And that’s not even including the bevy of previously released behind the scenes featurettes.
Scream Factory has delivered a disc that is a treasure trove of discussion on the film, and is a must have for anyone looking to get deeper into the mind of The Dead Zone.
The Dead Zone arrives on Blu-ray from Scream Factory July 27th. Check out the special features below and order your copy here!
By Matt Konopka