The Dead Zone (film)

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The Dead Zone
The Dead Zone.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDavid Cronenberg
Screenplay byJeffrey Boam
Based onThe Dead Zone
by Stephen King
Produced byDebra Hill[1]
CinematographyMark Irwin
Edited byRonald Sanders
Music byMichael Kamen
Distributed byParamount Pictures (North America)
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (International)
Release date
  • October 21, 1983 (1983-10-21)
Running time
103 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States[1]
Budget$7.1 million[2] or $10 million[1]
Box office$16.3 million[2] or $20.8 million[3]

The Dead Zone is a 1983 American science-fiction thriller film directed by David Cronenberg. The screenplay, by Jeffrey Boam, is based on the 1979 novel of the same name by Stephen King. The film stars Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Martin Sheen, Anthony Zerbe, and Colleen Dewhurst. Walken plays a schoolteacher, Johnny Smith, who awakens from a coma to find he has psychic powers. The film received positive reviews. The novel also inspired a television series of the same name in the early 2000s, starring Anthony Michael Hall, the 2-hour pilot episode of which borrowed some ideas and changes used in the 1983 film.

In the novel, the phrase "dead zone" refers to the part of Johnny Smith's brain that is irreparably damaged, resulting in his dormant psychic potential awakening. When some information in Johnny's visions is beyond his perception, he considers that information as existing "in the dead zone." In the film adaptation, the phrase "dead zone" is that part of his psychic vision that is missing — a blank area that he cannot see. This "dead zone" refers to an outcome that is not yet determined, meaning Johnny can change the future.


After having a headache following a ride on a roller coaster in Castle Rock, Maine, schoolteacher Johnny Smith politely declines when his girlfriend Sarah asks if he wants to spend the night with her. As he drives home through stormy weather, he has a car accident that leaves him in a coma. Awakening under the care of neurologist Dr. Sam Weizak, he finds that five years have passed, and Sarah is now a married mother.

Johnny discovers that he can now learn aspects of a person's life through physical contact. As he touches a nurse's hand, he sees her daughter trapped in a fire. He also sees that Weizak's mother, long thought to have died during World War II, is still alive and that a pushy reporter's sister killed herself. Johnny's mother has a heart attack and dies after Johnny visits her in the hospital.

As news of his gift spreads, Sheriff George Bannerman asks Johnny for help with a series of murders, but he wishes to be left alone. Sarah visits with her infant son, and Johnny and she have sex, though she declines a further relationship. Having a change of heart about the murders, Johnny agrees to help Bannerman, and, through a vision at the crime scene, he discovers that Bannerman's deputy Frank Dodd is the killer. Before they can arrest him, Dodd kills himself. Dodd's mother shoots Johnny before being killed by Bannerman.

Disillusioned and barely able to walk, Johnny moves away and attempts to live a more isolated life. He tutors children, working from home, until a wealthy man named Roger Stuart implores him to come visit and tutor his son, Chris. They form a friendship, but Johnny soon receives a vision of Chris and two other boys drowning in a local pond during an ice hockey game that Stuart was going to coach. He implores Stuart to change his plans, but he refuses. He smashes a vase with his cane to make his point, and is terminated. Despite Stuart's skepticism, Chris believes Johnny, and stays home; however, the other two boys drown, greatly shocking Stuart. Johnny realizes he has a "dead zone" in his visions, where the future is changeable.

Johnny attends a rally for Greg Stillson, a superficially charismatic third-party candidate for the United States Senate, for whom Sarah and her husband volunteer. Johnny shakes Stillson's hand, revealing Stillson as a ruthless demagogue, who, as President, orders what appears to be a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Johnny seeks out Weizak's advice, asking, for instance, if he would have killed Adolf Hitler if he had the chance, knowing beforehand the atrocities Hitler would commit. Weizak replies that he would have had no choice but to kill him. Johnny leaves Sarah a letter, telling her that what he is about to do will cost him his life, but is a worthwhile sacrifice.

Johnny loads a rifle and takes aim at Stillson at a rally, with Sarah in the audience. His shot misses the target, but Stillson grabs Sarah's baby and holds him as a human shield. Johnny refuses to risk hitting the child. A photographer snaps a picture of Stillson holding the baby. Sarah retrieves her baby, but, before Johnny attempts to fire again, he is shot by Stillson's bodyguard. Confronted by Stillson, Johnny grabs his hand and foresees Stillson's reputation and political ambitions being ruined; after the photograph of his cowardly act is published, Stillson will commit suicide. Johnny lies dying, satisfied that the holocaust has been averted. Sarah embraces Johnny, and tells him, as he dies, that she loves him.




After King's novel The Dead Zone was released in 1979, Lorimar Film Entertainment began developing a film adaptation. Producer Carol Baum gave the book to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam and asked him to write a screenplay. "I saw it had great possibilities and agreed to do it," Boam said.[4] He developed a script with director Stanley Donen, who left the project before the film had reached production at Lorimar.[5] Lorimar eventually closed its film division after a series of box-office failures, and soon after, producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights to The Dead Zone. He initially disliked Boam's screenplay and asked King to adapt his own novel.[4][6] De Laurentiis then reportedly rejected King's script as "involved and convoluted";[7] however, David Cronenberg, who ultimately directed the film, said that he was the one who decided not to use the script, finding it "needlessly brutal".[4] De Laurentiis rejected a second script by Andrzej Żuławski, eventually returning to Boam.[8] The film was finally on track to be made when De Laurentiis hired producer Debra Hill to work with Cronenberg and Boam.[4]

Boam abandoned King's parallel story structure for The Dead Zone's screenplay, turning the plot into separate episodes. Boam told writer Tim Lucas in 1983, "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."[4] His script was revised and condensed four times by Cronenberg, who eliminated large portions of the novel's story,[9] including plot points about Johnny Smith having a brain tumor.[4] Cronenberg, Boam, and Hill had script meetings to revise the screenplay page by page. Boam's "triptych" in the screenplay surrounds three acts: the introduction of Johnny Smith before his car accident and after he awakes from a coma, a story about Smith assisting a sheriff in tracking down the Castle Rock Killer, and finally Johnny deciding to confront the politician Stillson. Boam said he enjoyed writing character development for Smith, having him struggle with the responsibility of his psychic abilities, and ultimately giving up his life for the greater good. "It was this theme that made me like the book, and I particularly enjoyed discovering it in what was essentially a genre piece, a work of exploitation," he said. In Boam's first draft of the screenplay, Johnny does not die at the end, but rather has a vision about the Castle Rock Killer, who is still alive and escaped from prison. Cronenberg insisted that this "trick ending" be revised. Boam submitted the final draft of the screenplay on November 8, 1982.[4]

King is reported to have told Cronenberg that the changes the director and Boam made to the story "improved and intensified the power of the narrative."[7]

Before Christopher Walken was cast as Johnny Smith, Bill Murray was considered for the role[10] as it was King's first choice.[11] Cronenberg initially wanted Nicholas Campbell to portray Johnny, but the director wound up casting him as the Castle Rock Killer instead.[12] Cronenberg also wanted Hal Holbrook to portray Sheriff Bannerman but De Laurentiis objected.[12]

In addition to Donen, both John Badham and Michael Cimino were also considered to direct.[13]


Shooting started in early January 1983[14] and took place in the Greater Toronto Area and the Regional Municipality of Niagara of Cronenberg's native Ontario, Canada. The so-called Screaming Tunnel, located in nearby Niagara Falls, Ontario, was also used as the backdrop for one scene. The gazebo was built by the film crew and donated to Niagara-on-the-Lake.[1]

According to a David Cronenberg interview on the DVD, The Dead Zone was filmed during a relentless deep freeze in southern Ontario, which lasted for weeks, creating an authentic atmosphere of subzero temperatures and icy, snow-packed terrain, which made for great natural shooting locations, despite it being almost too cold for cast and crew to tolerate at times. Canada's Wonderland, a theme park 30 km north of Toronto's city limits, was also used as a filming location.


The music soundtrack, composed by Michael Kamen, was recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, London, at the famous EMI Abbey Road Studios. Michael Kamen conducted the recording sessions; the orchestra was contracted and led by Sidney Sax. This is the only Cronenberg film since The Brood (1979) for which Howard Shore was not composer.


The Dead Zone received very positive reviews on release.[1] It holds an approval rating of 90% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 48 reviews. The site's consensus reads, "The Dead Zone combines taut direction from David Cronenberg and a rich performance from Christopher Walken to create one of the strongest Stephen King adaptations."[15] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 69 out of 100 based on 8 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[16]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars, describing The Dead Zone as by far the best of the half-a-dozen cinematic adaptations of King's novels to that date. He praised Cronenberg's direction for successfully weaving the supernatural into the everyday, and noted believable performances by the entire cast, especially Walken: "Walken does such a good job of portraying Johnny Smith, the man with the strange gift, that we forget this is science fiction or fantasy or whatever and just accept it as this guy's story."[17] Janet Maslin of The New York Times referred to the film as "a well-acted drama more eerie than terrifying, more rooted in the occult than in sheer horror."[18]

Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader was more critical of the film, describing it as "By no means a bad film, just a disappointingly bland and superficial one ... in which director David Cronenberg relinquishes the one thing that had always set him apart from his Canadian colleagues: his willingness to follow his intuitions rather than the logic of a script."[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "The Dead Zone (1983)". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved January 19, 2018.
  2. ^ a b De Laurentiis PRODUCER'S PICTURE DARKENS: KNOEDELSEDER, WILLIAM K, Jr. Los Angeles Times 30 Aug 1987: 1.
  3. ^ "The Dead Zone". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 19, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Lucas, Tim (December 1984 – January 1984). "The Dead Zone". Cinefantastique. 14 (2): 24–35.
  5. ^ Ferrante, A.C. (May 1, 2013). "Exclusive Interview: The Last Crusade of Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam". Assignment X/EON Magazine. Midnight Productions, Inc.
  6. ^ Collings, Michael R. (August 30, 2008). The Films of Stephen King. Borgo Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0893709846.
  7. ^ a b Wiater, Stanley; Golden, Christopher; Wagner, Iank (May 2001). The Stephen King Universe: The Guide to the Worlds of the King of Horror. Renaissance Books. p. 139. ISBN 1580631606.
  8. ^ "AFI|Catalog".
  9. ^ Magistrate, Tony (2003). "Defining Heroic Codes of Survival". Hollywood's Stephen King. New York City: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 120. ISBN 0312293216.
  10. ^ Locke, Greg W. (August 26, 2011). "The Top 25 Roles Bill Murray Didn't Take". Archived from the original on November 25, 2011. Retrieved May 25, 2015.
  11. ^ Evans, Bradford (February 17, 2011). "The Lost Roles of Bill Murray". Archived from the original on May 20, 2015. Retrieved May 25, 2015.
  12. ^ a b Mell, Eila (2015). Casting Might-Have-Beens: A Film by Film Directory of Actors Considered for Roles Given to Others. McFarland. ISBN 9781476609768.pages 66-67
  13. ^ Lambie, Ryan (February 21, 2015). "Why The Dead Zone Is One of the Best Stephen King Films". Den of Geek. Retrieved July 2, 2019.
  14. ^ Lucas, p. 24
  15. ^ "The Dead Zone". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 15, 2021.
  16. ^ "The Dead Zone". Metacritic. Retrieved August 15, 2021.
  17. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 26, 1983). "The Dead Zone". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  18. ^ Maslin, Janet (October 21, 1983). "FILM: 'DEAD ZONE,' FROM KING NOVEL". The New York Times. Retrieved September 14, 2016.
  19. ^ Kehr, Dave (October 26, 1985). "The Dead Zone". Chicago Reader. Archived from the original on July 22, 2010. Retrieved August 15, 2021.

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