Videodrome was a very heavy experience. If you're used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a heavy picture. But if you're used to Videodrome, The Dead Zone is not.
- David Cronenberg as quoted in Cronenberg on Cronenberg by Chris Rodley
Well, maybe. But maybe not. Depends on how you define "heavy." I probably could have taken a pretty good stab at writing about The Dead Zone without watching it again since I'd guess it's the Cronenberg film I've watched most often, which is a side effect of it being the first Cronenberg film I liked. Along with A History of Violence and, despite its extremely Cronenbergian qualities and high level of disgustingness, The Fly, this 1983 adaptation of a Stephen King novel is easily his most accessible film -- its plot is of a somewhat, what I guess you'd call, populist bent, and Cronenberg doesn't pull a Dr. Moreau-esque transformative vivisection on King's novel, as he did with the George Langerlan short story that was the basis for The Fly (and all other The Fly movies). The film is reasonably faithful to King's original book, and King's imagination, like Steven Spielberg's, is, not from cynicism but by nature, a populist one. All of this is perhaps what Cronenberg is talking about in the above quote. Later in the Rodley book, he says that anyone who believes that with The Dead Zone he was not "follow[ing] [his] own instincts...are completely wrong," and that, anyway, you can't chase popularity and expect to succeed. He made the film, he says, because it did strike a personal chord: "Personally the film is just like me, but filmically I suppose not." All of which adds up to a film, in the skilled hands of Cronenberg, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, and a terrific cast, that is very easy to like.
If there's one person involved in the making of The Dead Zone who can really bring home what Cronenberg is trying to get at here, it's Christopher Walken. And thank God he's Christopher Walken. First off, what Cronenberg is interested in is not merely the physical aspect of Johnny's condition, which is a more or less arbitrary invention anyway, but the psychological blowback that a person with Johnny's powers would experience. The Dead Zone is a tragedy about a man who is destroyed by an ability that most people, if they didn't think about it too long, would consider an endless good. But Johnny seems to sense the potential for ruin right out of the gate, and Walken's performance is a relentless highlighting of the character's depression (which stems also from still living in a moment five years ago when he and Sarah were in love but now no longer can be), loneliness, and inability to be as selfish as he would so desperately like to be. Or anyway, to be devoted to his own preservation over all else. Walken's performance here is, I'd say, his best -- it's my favorite, anyway. In the early stages of the film, things skew a little awkward, and I believe this is because in an attempt to make Christopher Walken, who is after all playing a character named Johnny Smith, appear as a small-town everyman, Cronenberg accidentally made him seem even stranger. Walken is a strange person, his appearance is unusual, his voice and speaking rhythms are unlike anyone else, so giving him a goofball haircut and making him whoop it up on a roller coaster doesn't fly -- except in Catch Me If You Can, and even in that there are some qualifiers, Walken does not project normalcy. So it's not until Johnny is a shell of his former self that Walken comes alive, the same way some strange-looking young person might some day grow into their looks. Johnny has always been strange and haunted, but it wasn't until he awoke from his coma that he had the opportunity to live that life to the hilt.
But it doesn't matter, because of Walken. Cronenberg himself says he, Walken, is what the film is about:
The loneliness and the melancholy and the impossibility of dealing with things. And yet the necessity to do it. That's what it was. It's Chris Walken's face. That's the subject of the movie; that's what the movie was about. All the things that are in his face.
What I'm getting at, but not really, but what I mean to get at, is that Johnny is driven to his climactic actions only partly by his belief that it's the right thing to do. The rest of his motivation, which has been communicated over the last 90 minutes by Walken's face, is made up of what might even to him be a vague understanding that because he clearly won't get out of this mess alive, this mess is, therefore, his big chance. His death wish will be fulfilled. If you need to die, as Johnny does, but you're not suicidal, the moral imperative and martyrdom that Stillson has forced upon him is kind of a Godsend. "God's been a real sport to me," Johnny spits, sarcastically, at Tom Skerritt's sheriff when the man has the nerve to call Johnny's psychic abilities a gift from God. So maybe He hasn't been, but when that bullet passes through Johnny's chest, it could be His way of making it up to him.