Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! You may know this month’s guest, Phil Nobile Jr., as the Editor-in-Chief of an up-and-coming horror outlet called (checks notes) FANGORIA magazine. You may have only heard of them if you’re one of our more hardcore horror fans, but I highly recommend you keep up with them because I think they’re going places. In all seriousness, Nobile has been tirelessly steering the ship during Fango’s relaunch in 2018 and their change in ownership in 2020. He’s getting a variety of voices into the horror-verse not only through the print magazine, but also through a robust virtual platform and even a regular email newsletter.
In between all of this, Nobile found a little time to chat with me about David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. You may remember I covered eXistenZ with Joe Lipsett a while back, but what’s interesting about The Dead Zone is that, unlike eXistenZ, it doesn’t seem like a typical Cronenberg at first glance. Gone is the hallmark body horror, replaced instead quite literally with cerebral horror as the film follows Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), a sweet if rather square teacher whose life is turned upside down when a car accident leaves him in a coma for five years. When he wakes up, he learns that his girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams), has moved on, his legs have atrophied after years of neglect, and the accident seems to have triggered a psychic ability where he can see death in the past, present, and future for those with whom he makes physical contact.
As superpowers go, this one may be useful, but as we see, it’s also pretty damn depressing. Phil, do you remember your first time watching The Dead Zone, and what were your initial reactions?
I saw it in the theater! It was my first Cronenberg (after a narrow miss at the drive-in in 1981, when my family didn’t stay for the second feature after Escape From New York). The Dead Zone is maybe not the Cronenberg you want to start with, but as I’d come to discover later, it was very much his crossover film, aimed squarely at the mainstream with recognizable stars, emotional stakes, and a source novel by Hollywood’s favorite horror author.
And I was probably the perfect age to catch it when I did—I bought into the tragedy and the melodrama of it all. I think I cried when his mom died. I remember thinking it was a beautifully dramatic film.
Both this and Cronenberg’s next film, the 1986 remake of The Fly, both seem like the Mainstream Cronenberg double feature. But while The Fly leans into the patented Cronenberg body horror, that element is pretty much non-existent in The Dead Zone. Yet even with a decided lack of sexually charged gore and glop, this movie still feels very Cronenbergian. Would you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?
We could argue that the way Johnny’s “gift” takes a toll on him physically is “Cronenberigian,” but I think that’s just inherent in King’s stuff—psychic nosebleeds in Firestarter, etc. A bit of a chicken/egg thing there. I think the chilly melancholy that was present in previous Cronenberg films blossoms here, and the very emotional score by Michael Kamen feels of a piece with his previous work (even though it’s not his usual collaborator, Howard Shore). I think it might be more Cornenbergian in terms of the seeds here—he seems to never again go back to the regional acting pool, his films become MUCH more emotional after this, and after a decade-plus of original work, The Dead Zone marks the beginning of a 13-year stretch of mapping his vision onto existing source material. He wouldn’t make an “original” film again until eXistenZ. So The Dead Zone is a real fork in the road.
To me, Cronenberg isn’t about gore and sex, though those elements feature heavily in some of his work. Those elements were always in service of his larger, career-long conversation with his audience as an atheist who’s nevertheless obsessed with the fantasy of shedding the biological restrictions of reality. And The Dead Zone is certainly about that, though in a very accessible, mainstream way. Johnny “leaving” his body to experience these visions is in line with what Cronenberg was playing with in The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome.
That’s an excellent point about the emotion present in his subsequent work. In addition to The Fly, I think you really see that emotional core at work in my favorite Cronenberg movie, 2005’s A History of Violence. In both films you have a very likeable protagonist whose life takes a decidedly difficult turn over the course of the movie.
But whereas Viggo Mortensen’s character in A History of Violence is reaping the consequences of his own actions, a lot of Johnny’s difficulty seems inflicted on him. I couldn’t help but feel for him as he keeps being punished for making the right decision. What do you think Cronenberg (and I suppose, by extension, King) was trying to convey with Johnny’s arc?
Cronenberg isn’t a moralist. There’s never any god in his world and lots of bad things happen to all kinds of people. As for Johnny’s arc specifically, yeah, it’s more or less handed to Cronenberg by King, isn’t it? King was a schoolteacher; I’d have to guess there was some autobiographical hero martyr fantasy at play in the premise. But for Cronenberg, I suspect the challenge was maybe teaching himself to do adaptations.
To me, Cronenberg’s a bit of a mad scientist, and his films aren’t as much about telling us something as they are asking himself something, trying to figure out a problem. When you look at the five films that followed—The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, and Crash—it seems like the experiment is working with someone else’s story, and playing with the different ways of making those stories his own. As this one’s the first out of the gate, it maybe doesn’t feel as reshaped by him as those others do. What do you think?
Yeah, I think there’s definitely some truth to that. I mean, if I’m David Cronenberg doing my first adaptation for one of the biggest authors of all time, I’m maybe not going to screw with it too much.
So we’re definitely in a world built by King through something of a Cronenberg lens. And while Cronenberg isn’t a moralist, King often shines a light on religion for better and worse. Here I think it’s interesting that it lurks in the background, with hints that Johnny’s keeping himself chaste for Sarah at the beginning of the film and a mother who clearly knows her way around some scripture. What’s interesting is that ultimately it seems as though Johnny’s decision to try and do the right thing with his gift isn’t because of resolute faith, but more because that faith is being severely tested by his circumstances.
But of course, while Johnny is enduring his hero’s trial, we have to have the other side of that coin, which we get through Martin Sheen’s devil-tongued Senatorial candidate, Greg Stillson. How does Stillson land for you given our own encounter with a decidedly less eloquent, but no less dangerous individual in a seat of power over the last four years?
It’s certainly easy to memeify Stillson, and it’s just as tempting to hope for the kind of turn Stillson’s journey takes to happen to our real-life avatar, but at the same time, I think we’ve possibly learned that while a lunatic can get the job, it *might* be a little harder in real life for that lunatic to launch the missiles. Maybe. Hopefully.
God, let’s hope so. And of course, King as a storyteller isn’t necessarily known for dwelling in subtlety. There’s a pretty clear inversion between Stillson and Johnny, where Stillson’s contact with people results in his benefit at other people’s expense, while Johnny’s contact with people results in their benefit at his own expense.
It seems the only person with a complicated arc is Sarah. Understandably, she’d moved on after Johnny had been in a coma for five years, but she also initiates their brief reconnection after he wakes up only to disappear from his life again. Then, when we see her again, it’s in the context of her stumping for Stillson, not as a fervent believer, but seemingly more as a favor to her husband. What’s your read on her?
I think the most emo part of me buys into the star-crossed lovers bit, and exes reconnect for one-night stands all the time, so it all reads as authentic to me. Life sucks; shit happens. Their one consummation was something two adults did, knowing it wouldn’t go beyond that, and giving themselves some sort of consolation prize for the pain their love for each other had put them through. She loves her husband, but her relationship with Johnny is an open wound.
Putting her and her child up on that podium at the end is a tidy bit of writing, but it’s also delicious melodrama. Kind of perfect.
Melodrama really is the core of both the story and the film, which I think touches back to where King and Cronenberg’s sensibilities meet. Have you read the book, either before or after having seen the movie? I’m wondering if Cronenberg made any major changes to the plot for his adaptation.
It’s been decades since I read the book (probably after seeing the movie), and I think one of the big changes was that you don’t see exactly how Stillson’s fate [ends up]; Johnny just knows that he’s changed the trajectory and ended his chances of being president. I think in the novel it’s suggested that Johnny’s “gift” was always somewhat present, but the car accident kind of knocks it loose. And the novel tracks Stillson’s rise in a lot more detail and paints him as a psychopath from the jump.
So it seems there may be a few small variances, but for the most part the movie stays true to the source material. In the early 2000s, we got the television series with Anthony Michael Hall. Did you catch any of that, and if so, what do you think of what they did with the premise? Do you think there’s room for a new adaptation today? What approach would you want to see?
I saw an episode or two of the first season, but I didn’t stick with it. It seemed they were maybe ahead of the curve in taking a source novel and extrapolating a much bigger world out of it, something that Hannibal did so well.
A new adaptation would be tough, because I think as a nation we’re pretty binary at the moment, and I’m not sure that the political Stillson stuff is a needle that could be threaded in 2021. But we’re in the middle of a King adaptation renaissance, and I’d be surprised if someone wasn’t working on a new Dead Zone right now. Maybe Stillson can be reimagined as an unscrupulous tech bro who Johnny has to stop from initiating Armageddon.