David Cronenberg’s Most Underrated Film is a Chilling Reminder The End is Always Nigh
Doom is around every corner, if only you could see it.
The 21st century has been warped by a wave of hyper-interconnectivity, infecting all of us with an appetite for global information. The internet, pulsing like a collective organ for the human race, has given us unbridled access to knowledge in exchange for a new kind of existential anxiety. To know is to fear, and being plugged in all day has made us privy to every horror unfolding across the world at any given time.
We’re the most overstimulated generation of human beings to walk the Earth, and every natural catastrophe, violent crime, and authoritarian demagogue gives us a glimpse at what the end could look like. The price of information is a front-row seat to every potential societal collapse, a feeling two of horror’s greatest visionaries amplified and twisted into a paranormal tragedy.
Unlike many projects with David Cronenberg or Stephen King attached, The Dead Zone never quite becomes a traditional horror movie. It does, however, live firmly in the realm of the uncanny. After English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) wakes up from a coma and discovers he now has the power to touch someone and see their future, the terror doesn’t come from a haunted hotel or a torturous physical transformation; it comes from the bleak anxiety of knowing that at some point soon he’ll see something horrific destined to pass unless he intervenes. There’s always a clock ticking just beneath the surface, counting the seconds until Johnny and the audience are forced to chronicle some new tragedy.
It’s a shame how underrated The Dead Zone is as both a Cronenberg film and a King adaptation, considering it’s a potent distillation of both their artistic traits. King’s presence in this world is unmistakeable; the film takes place in the perpetual dreamlike winter of his iconic Castle Rock, Maine, and the characters that inhabit it have rich inner lives, feeling like flesh-and-blood people living out their days as they collide with Johnny. And while there are no grotesque transformations of human flesh, Johnny suffers the same fate as many of Cronenberg’s protagonists: his visions result in total social alienation, condemning him to the frigid, oppressive atmosphere found in films like The Brood and Scanners.
Many films have used telepathy and second sight, but few are as bleak in how they treat their consequences. The violent, abrasive editing Cronenberg would traditionally use to shoot a bodily transfiguration is employed here to display the painful intrusion of Johnny’s visions. Glimpses of a catastrophic military conflict or the bitter cold of a drowning assault both Johnny and the audience, further hardening his heart to his newfound ability. Walken’s performance reflects a certain disaffected apathy in Johnny, and in 2023 that feeling of being too paralyzed to move is a familiar one, coming with every new moment of social upheaval or needless tragedy made accessible to us online.
For Johnny, our final days aren’t an abstract theorization but a tangible force of nature in the form of Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a sociopathic U.S. Senate hopeful. Stillson’s fervent populism might feel familiar to anyone who witnessed Trump’s rise to power, but Stillson is a reflection of fascism’s public face throughout history. Every ascension is preceded by a false appeal to the whims of the silent majority, pretending to empathize with the struggles of the many before engulfing them in a world of chaos.
Martin Sheen’s larger-than-life performance almost feels cartoonish, but the barely hidden contempt for his constituents hiding behind his agreeable demeanor isn’t just accurate; it’s directly observable. The United States alone is full of countless examples of politicians hiding sinister intent behind a curtain of egalitarianism, and having direct insight into the political sector feels like watching a car crash in slow-motion, not unlike Johnny brushing Stillson’s hand and seeing the future President ending the world with the push of a big red button.
Johnny’s attempt to expose Stillson as a monster ends on a bittersweet note, but it ends. Life can feel insurmountable when you have a front-row seat to the darkness of history, and sometimes it takes a reminder that the future is malleable to pull us back from the brink. Knowledge by itself can inspire helplessness at the state of the world, but nothing is ever truly set in stone until it’s over.
The Dead Zone is streaming on Amazon Prime.