35 Years Later, ’The Dead Zone’s Political Parable Is More Powerful Than Ever

     October 22, 2018

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In David Cronenberg’s 1983 film The Dead Zone, based on Stephen King‘s novel of the same name, Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) represents the lengths good people in the modern world must go to in order to be heard above the fray of the powerful and influential. After saying good night his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) one evening (Johnny is all about waiting until marriage), he gets in a car accident that puts him in a coma for 5 years. When he wakes up, he’s bedridden and Sarah is now married with a small child. As Johnny begins his recovery and regains his strength, he finds the accident has imbued him with psychic abilities allowing him to see into the future of anyone he touches. This leads Johnny’s story down several different paths where he discovers the perils of fame, hunts a serial killer, becomes a tutor, and, most famously, must stop the slimy Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) from being elected to the Senate after Johnny sees a horrifying premonition.

The figure of Greg Stillson has been called upon quite a bit in recent years. Once thought of as a worst-case scenario, Stillson now feels like a reality since the election of the unpredictable and emotional Donald Trump. King himself wrote of Stillson and Trump in a piece for The Guardian about how these kind of men rise to a place of power, “first as a joke, then as a viable alternative to the status quo, and finally as elected officials who are headstrong, self-centered and inexperienced. Such men do not succeed to high office often, but when they do, the times are always troubled, the candidates in question charismatic, their proposed solutions to complex problems simple, straightforward and impractical. The baggage that should weigh these hucksters down becomes magically light, lifting them over the competition.”

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Image via Paramount

Within this conceit King, and subsequently Cronenberg, turn a would-be assassin into a hero and therein lays the heart of The Dead Zone; Johnny’s unwavering and unmistakable goodness. As an audience we trust Johnny’s psychic ability and his decision making as he is proved right time and again. Played by a practically baby-faced Walken, Johnny exhibits flashes of the toll repeated and experienced trauma can have while also displaying kindness to those around him, illustrating that power does not have to corrupt. Johnny is cursed as his predictions are doubted and mocked as much as they are believed – Johnny in this case is one of the few examples of the male Cassandra figure in film. While slashers have favored the Harbinger, a person who warns the nubile of teens of their impending doom but is disbelieved because they are either old, drunk, crazy or a combination of all three, a Cassandra is different.

Cassandra is a figure from Greek mythology who predicted the Trojan War and its devastating aftermath. She was able to predict the war because the god Apollo came to Earth fell in love with her and blessed her with the gift of prophecy. Cassandra rejected him and out of spite, Apollo placed a cursed on her that despite her new-found abilities no one would believe her, turning her gift into her downfall as she must watch tragedy after tragedy knowing they could have been prevented. Likewise, Johnny’s ability to see into the future leaves him increasingly isolated through the onslaught of attention he receives once his gift becomes known, he becomes increasingly withdrawn though he never fully stops trying to help. Johnny is a Cassandra figure because the film is so firmly entrenched in his point of view. While people disbelieve or are unwilling to accept his warnings, there is little doubt that he is right. Johnny’s frustration and grief is palpable and the audience shares it.

Throughout the film, Johnny’s abilities allow him to save some but not all, as tragedy and grief follow him. Cronenberg’s film and Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay focus on the exploits of Johnny as he moves as quietly as he can through the world mourning his lost love and facing the hurdles of responsibility that that come with his power. Cronenberg smartly allows minimal space for sentimentality in the film relying on Walken’s innate warmth to shine through. The Dead Zone explores the life of a good man with a curse of responsibility.

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Image via Paramount

By the end of the film, Johnny has experienced enough of his power and enough of the suspicion that surrounds him that when he sees the worst future possible, he knows he must do something drastic. After shaking hands with Stillson at a campaign rally Johnny sees the following interaction set to take place in the future:

Stillson: Put your hand on the scanning screen, and you’ll go down in history with me!
General: As what? The world’s greatest mass murderers?
Stillson: You cowardly bastard! You’re not the voice of the people; I am the voice of the people! The people speak through me, not you!

Prior to this we’ve only seen Sheen’s Stillson as smarmy, conniving and corrupt, nothing particularly out of the ordinary for a politician hell-bent on getting elected, but Johnny is able to see the destruction that this “joke” of a politician is capable of in the future. Knowing that nothing he can say or do will prevent this, Johnny takes matters into his own hands putting into motion one of the most tragic yet fitting endings in genre cinema.

The Dead Zone was a parable and warning in 1983. Thirty-five years later it feels a little too familiar and a bit too realistic. When journalism and reporting are being cast as “fake news” by the people in power, those on the left and center of politics feel like Cassandra, watching  facts and research get pushed to the side as the next controversy crests on the horizon. The Dead Zone’s eerie relevance reminds us that history is cyclical and relies one the nobleness of humanity to rise above the trappings that threaten to consume us all.

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