The Dead Zone (1983)

R | 103 mins | Drama, Horror | 1983

Director:

David Cronenberg

Writer:

Jeffrey Boam

Producer:

Debra Hill

Cinematographer:

Mark Irwin

Editor:

Ronald Sanders

Production Designer:

Carol Spier

Production Company:

Dino De Laurentiis Corporation
Full page view
HISTORY

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Michael Thielvoldt, an independent scholar.

According to production notes from AMPAS library files, Lorimar Productions bought the motion picture rights to Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone shortly after it was published and hired screenwriter Jeffrey Boam to adapt the novel. According to Chris Rodley, editor of the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London, 1993), Lorimar staff member Carol Baum, a fan of director David Cronenberg, offered Cronenberg the project with Sydney Pollack slated to produce. However, Baum realized she made a mistake when she discovered Stanley Donen had already been hired to direct. After the offer was rescinded, Cronenberg instead wrote and directed Videodrome (1983, see entry). In 1980, Lorimar closed its feature film division soon after Boam submitted his first draft of the screenplay. The Dead Zone was then put on hold until Nov 1981 when Dino De Laurentiis optioned the novel and offered the project to Debra Hill to develop.
       In Cronenberg on Cronenberg , Rodley revealed that De Laurentiis rejected Boam’s original script and hired Steven King to adapt his own novel. After five unsatisfactory drafts that focused heavily on the Castle Rock killer storyline, according to Cronenberg, De Laurentiis commissioned Polish director Andrej Zulawski to write another script. Though his screen credit reads “Dino De Laurentiis Presents,” a 13 Mar 1983 LAT article identified De Laurentiis as executive producer of the film, citing his involvement not only in script development, but financing and casting. De Laurentiis read each draft ... More Less

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Michael Thielvoldt, an independent scholar.

According to production notes from AMPAS library files, Lorimar Productions bought the motion picture rights to Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone shortly after it was published and hired screenwriter Jeffrey Boam to adapt the novel. According to Chris Rodley, editor of the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London, 1993), Lorimar staff member Carol Baum, a fan of director David Cronenberg, offered Cronenberg the project with Sydney Pollack slated to produce. However, Baum realized she made a mistake when she discovered Stanley Donen had already been hired to direct. After the offer was rescinded, Cronenberg instead wrote and directed Videodrome (1983, see entry). In 1980, Lorimar closed its feature film division soon after Boam submitted his first draft of the screenplay. The Dead Zone was then put on hold until Nov 1981 when Dino De Laurentiis optioned the novel and offered the project to Debra Hill to develop.
       In Cronenberg on Cronenberg , Rodley revealed that De Laurentiis rejected Boam’s original script and hired Steven King to adapt his own novel. After five unsatisfactory drafts that focused heavily on the Castle Rock killer storyline, according to Cronenberg, De Laurentiis commissioned Polish director Andrej Zulawski to write another script. Though his screen credit reads “Dino De Laurentiis Presents,” a 13 Mar 1983 LAT article identified De Laurentiis as executive producer of the film, citing his involvement not only in script development, but financing and casting. De Laurentiis read each draft and provided feedback, raised the $10 million budget from independent sources, and traveled to Toronto, Canada, during casting, suggesting actors Anthony Zerbe and Herbert Lom for the roles in which they were eventually cast.
       After Hill came aboard to produce, she rehired Boam. An Oct 1983 Moviegoer article explained that Hill met Cronenberg for the first time in the office of Canadian filmmaker John Landis, where she offered Cronenberg the project. According to the director, it was his affection for Stephen King that prompted him to accept the offer, and, in spring 1982, Cronenberg agreed to direct.
       In Moviegoer , Cronenberg described the development of the script as a highly collaborative effort between Boam, Hill, De Laurentiis, and himself, though only Boam received writing credit. After Cronenberg, Hill, and Boam worked together in a Toronto hotel room to combine the novel’s three storylines into one “linear narrative,” De Laurentiis combed through an Italian translation of the draft and made notes on each page. Production notes stated that the new version adhered to the point-of-view of only one character, the clairvoyant, “Johnny Smith.” In Cronenberg on Cronenberg , Boam attributed the decision to tell the story through Johnny’s perspective to Cronenberg, adding that this approach differed drastically from Stanley Donen’s original vision. Cronenberg also changed the source of Johnny’s “dead zones” from a brain tumor to a more ambiguous deterioration of Johnny’s health. According to production notes, the script was completed in Oct 1982.
       Associate producer Jeffrey Chernov scouted locations in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, before heading to Canada to explore Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island for areas that would embody the “Norman Rockwell American Gothic” atmosphere Cronenberg desired. Chernov finally discovered the historically preserved town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, only a few miles north of the New York border and an ideal double for the film’s New Hampshire setting. Filmmakers set up a base of operations in Toronto, the director’s hometown.
       Principal photography began 10 Jan 1983 and lasted ten weeks. According to Moviegoer , a Canadian crew was employed, many of whom had worked on previous Cronenberg projects. Production notes stated that weather posed a problem, and, shooting on one of the coldest nights in the area’s recorded history, with a temperature of 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit with wind chill factored in, extras suffered windburn and one person collapsed from a case of near-hypothermia. Ironically, the freezing weather was followed by the third warmest winter in over one hundred years. As a result, filmmakers had to replace melted snow with forty-foot-long by forty-eight-inches-wide bales of “snow bunting,” or cotton batten, nailed into the ground.
       As Niagara-on-the-Lake’s unemployment rate was 21%, 600 locals applied to act as extras in the film, though only 250 were needed. Those selected worked either as onlookers to the gazebo murder scene or as Stillson’s political supporters. Additionally, many of the filming locations were Niagara-on-the-Lake residences, including the home of a local Anglican priest used as Johnny’s apartment. The Niagara Institute, then-headquarters of a low-profile think tank but originally built as a summer home, provided the exterior for Dr. Weizak’s clinic, where Johnny recuperated after his coma. A 125-foot-long and sixteen-foot-high tunnel, known as the “screaming tunnel,” served as the first crime scene of the film’s fictional “Castle Rock Killer.” The tunnel, originally built by the Canadian National Railway, earned the nickname after a fire seventy-five years prior claimed the life of a young boy. This history, compounded by the “rotten egg stench” of an adjacent natural sulfur spring and wailing wind sounds, gave the tunnel its reputation as being haunted.
       In the 13 Mar 1983 LAT article, frequent Cronenberg collaborators, cinematographer Mark Irwin and production designer Carol Spier, discussed the freedom Cronenberg allowed them in developing “a concept” for Johnny’s “vision” in which the character sees Stillson in the future, surrounded by presidential advisors. Though the scene was initially written to take place inside Air Force One, Spier was not able to obtain a plane and lacked the money necessary to build one. Spier and Irwin contemplated relocating the scene to a “hi-tech bunker” or a “black, limbolike space” before deciding on a more “rustic” setting, “reminiscent of Camp David.”
       During the shoot, crew members erected a twenty-foot-wide gazebo, designed by Spier as an historically accurate duplicate of those found in New England. Following principal photography, the production donated the gazebo to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Though a brief debate ensued over the addition of a new structure to the town, otherwise defined by its historical architecture, Niagara-on-the-Lake kept the gazebo, which became a permanent fixture in the town’s Queens Royal Park. After concluding their work in the small town, the production completed filming in locations “within an eighty-mile radius of Toronto.”
       A 27 Jan 1983 Var news item announced that Paramount Pictures would distribute the film domestically. As stated in a 2 Sep 1983 LAT article, marketing The Dead Zone posed a challenge, namely because the film was a “psychological suspense story” made by a trio of collaborators known for the horror genre – author Steven King, director David Cronenberg, and producer Debra Hill. A proposed advertising campaign focusing on “high-tech” special effects in the film was nixed, along with “several other approaches that didn’t please the film makers.” According to LAT , a sneak preview was scheduled for 2 Sep 1983 at a theater in Wayne, NJ. Paramount planned to use comments from the screening to help remedy their marketing dilemma. Regarding his break from the horror genre, Cronenberg hoped his fan base would grow after the release of the film, which he considered his “first ‘emotionally accessible’” motion picture. Likewise, Hill believed The Dead Zone would be a potential entrée for herself into more “mainstream” motion pictures.
       The film opened 21 Oct 1983 to generally favorable reviews and box office success. According to a 29 Nov 1983 HR news brief, The Dead Zone had grossed slightly more than $18 million as of 27 Nov 1983. In his 26 Oct 1983 Chicago Sun-Times review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “No other King novel has been better filmed…and Cronenberg, who knows how to handle terror, now also knows how to create three-dimensional, fascinating characters.” Ebert extended his praise to Christopher Walken’s performance, as did many critics, calling it “the equal of his work in The Deer Hunter " (1978, see entry). In a negative review in HR on 12 Oct 1983, Duane Byrge deemed the screenplay trite and cinematically weak, despite Cronenberg’s “engrossing direction” and Walken’s “subtly powerful performance.”
       According to a 29 Nov 1983 HR news item, Lorimar Productions was not credited on the initial film prints or advertisements. De Laurentiis later corrected the oversight, inserting a “produced in association with Lorimar” credit on future prints and advertisements. A Lorimar spokesperson claimed the credit was “inadvertently” left off of prints and promotional materials, though the company had allegedly ceased all involvement in the project for three years prior to its release. In addition to the onscreen credit, Dino De Laurentiis Corporation took out advertisements to acknowledge Lorimar in LAT , NYT , WSJ , and movie industry trade publications. A 27 Nov 1983 LAT advertisement signed by Dino De Laurentiis Corporation read: “Thank you, Lorimar. We wish to gratefully acknowledge Lorimar Productions’ important contribution to The Dead Zone which has won critical acclaim and is the surprise hit of the year. The Dead Zone was produced in association with Lorimar Productions and we couldn’t have done it without you.” Though Lorimar was acknowledged at the time, the company’s credit does not appear on the 2006 “Special Collectors Edition” of the DVD.
       A television series titled The Dead Zone (alternately titled Stephen King’s Dead Zone ), based on characters from King’s novel, aired on the USA Network from 2002-2007 and starred Anthony Michael Hall as the central clairvoyant, “Johnny Smith.”
       According to production notes, Martin Scorsese’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Cathy Scorsese, worked on set with the special effects department for one week but was not credited.
More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Chicago Sun-Times
26 Oct 1983.
---
Daily Variety
14 Sep 1982.
---
Daily Variety
30 Dec 1982.
---
Daily Variety
27 Jan 1983.
---
Daily Variety
12 Oct 1983
p. 3, 16.
Hollywood Reporter
12 Oct 1983
p. 3, 23.
Hollywood Reporter
29 Nov 1983.
---
Los Angeles Times
13 Mar 1983
Section W, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times
2 Sep 1983
Section D, pp. 2-3.
Los Angeles Times
21 Oct 1983
p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
27 Nov 1983
Calendar, p. 42.
Moviegoer
Oct 1983.
---
New York Times
21 Oct 1983
p. 8.
Newsweek
7 Nov 1983.
---
Rolling Stone
3 Feb 1983.
---
Variety
12 Oct 1983
p. 20.
Village Voice
8 Nov 1983.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A David Cronenberg Film
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
3d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Cam trainee
Underwater cam
Key grip
Gaffer
Best boy
Generator op
Elec
Still photog
Processing by
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Asst art dir
Trainee art dir
Draftsman
Storyboard artist
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
Trainee ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
Asst props
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Const mgr
Head carpenter
Head carpenter
Carpenter
Carpenter
Scenic painter
Scenic painter
Scenic painter
Scenic painter
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ward master
Ward mistress
Ward asst
MUSIC
Mus comp and arr by
Mus performed by the
Rec eng
Mus sd eff eng
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom op
Re-rec mixer, Goldwyn Sound Facility
Re-rec mixer, Goldwyn Sound Facility
Re-rec mixer, Goldwyn Sound Facility
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed coord
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff coord
Spec eff foreman
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Video electronic eff
MAKEUP
Makeup artist
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Casting
Extra casting
Prod coord
Asst to Ms. Hill
Asst to Mr. Cronenberg
Prod accountant
Asst accountant
Asst accountant
Prod asst
Office asst
Office asst
Horse wrangler
Horse wrangler
Horse wrangler
Craft service
Transportation coord
Driver capt
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Driver
Stillson billboard concept by
Stillson photographs by
Biomedical adv
Hotel accommodations by
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Stunt coord
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The Dead Zone by Stephen King (New York, 1979).
AUTHOR
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Stephen King's The Dead Zone
Release Date:
1983
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 21 October 1983
Production Date:
10 January--late March 1983
Copyright Claimant:
Dino DeLaurentiis Corporation
Copyright Date:
1 February 1984
Copyright Number:
PA204490
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Color by Technicolor®
Lenses/Prints
Lenses & Panaflex® cameras by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
103
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
27127
SYNOPSIS

Johnny Smith and Sarah Bracknell, two young schoolteachers, love each other but have yet to consummate their relationship. One night, when Sarah encourages him to stay at her house, Johnny insists that “some things are worth waiting for” and drives away in the rain. On the road, he comes upon a wrecked semi-trailer truck and, swerving to avoid it, crashes his car. When he awakens from a coma at the Weizak Clinic, Johnny’s parents, Herb and Vera Smith, inform him that five years have passed. He asks about Sarah, and Vera laments that she married another man. Johnny soon finds he is plagued by clairvoyant visions as a result of his accident. When a nurse tends to him, Johnny grabs her hand and sees a vision of her daughter, Amy, trapped in a fiery house. He warns the nurse, urging her to seek help, which results in Amy’s rescue. Later, while discussing his rehabilitation with Dr. Sam Weizak, Johnny is struck by a vision as he grasps the doctor’s hand. He sees a war-torn city, and a young boy separated from his mother. Johnny states that the boy, a young Dr. Weizak, is safe, as is his mother. Though Dr. Weizak rejects the notion, believing that his mother perished long ago, Johnny provides a current address for the woman. Dr. Weizak later calls the number at the address and confirms that his mother is there, though he is unable to speak to her. One day, Sarah visits Johnny at the clinic and admits that she and her husband have an eighteen-month-old son named Denny. Sarah asks about Johnny’s clairvoyance, saying that he is “the talk of the town” ever ... +


Johnny Smith and Sarah Bracknell, two young schoolteachers, love each other but have yet to consummate their relationship. One night, when Sarah encourages him to stay at her house, Johnny insists that “some things are worth waiting for” and drives away in the rain. On the road, he comes upon a wrecked semi-trailer truck and, swerving to avoid it, crashes his car. When he awakens from a coma at the Weizak Clinic, Johnny’s parents, Herb and Vera Smith, inform him that five years have passed. He asks about Sarah, and Vera laments that she married another man. Johnny soon finds he is plagued by clairvoyant visions as a result of his accident. When a nurse tends to him, Johnny grabs her hand and sees a vision of her daughter, Amy, trapped in a fiery house. He warns the nurse, urging her to seek help, which results in Amy’s rescue. Later, while discussing his rehabilitation with Dr. Sam Weizak, Johnny is struck by a vision as he grasps the doctor’s hand. He sees a war-torn city, and a young boy separated from his mother. Johnny states that the boy, a young Dr. Weizak, is safe, as is his mother. Though Dr. Weizak rejects the notion, believing that his mother perished long ago, Johnny provides a current address for the woman. Dr. Weizak later calls the number at the address and confirms that his mother is there, though he is unable to speak to her. One day, Sarah visits Johnny at the clinic and admits that she and her husband have an eighteen-month-old son named Denny. Sarah asks about Johnny’s clairvoyance, saying that he is “the talk of the town” ever since the rescue of young Amy. Johnny says he would prefer to be forgotten, not talked about. In order to squash mounting curiosity about his abilities, Johnny holds a press conference at the clinic. There, a reporter badgers him to demonstrate his powers, and Johnny angrily confronts the reporter about his sister’s suicide. Upon seeing the televised press conference, Johnny’s mother, Vera, falls ill and dies in the hospital soon after. Following Vera’s death, Sheriff Bannerman visits Johnny at his parents’ home to ask for help in the “Castle Rock Killer” case, an ongoing investigation of a serial murderer. Reluctant, Johnny sends Bannerman away. Sometime later, Sarah arrives at the Smith residence, and, finding Johnny alone, initiates a one-time fling to consummate their love. After the visit, Johnny decides to help Bannerman after all. At a murder site, Johnny requests a piece of evidence that the killer may have touched, but the only evidence Bannerman is able to provide, a cigarette pack, does not elicit any visions. However, when a new victim is discovered, Sheriff Bannerman and his deputy, Frank Dodd, take Johnny along to the crime scene. At a gazebo by a lake, Johnny touches the dead woman’s hand and recounts the murder, identifying deputy Dodd as the killer. Before the sheriff can question him, Dodd retreats to his mother’s house. There, Henrietta Dodd tries to fend off Bannerman and Johnny, but Johnny touches her and realizes she knows her son is guilty. Dodd commits suicide upstairs, and Bannerman and Johnny find him dead. Henrietta Dodd shoots Johnny as he descends the stairs, and Bannerman guns her down. Following the close of the “Castle Rock Killer” case, Johnny relocates to a new town and lives a secluded life, working as a tutor. Tracking him down at his new home, Dr. Weizak urges Johnny to return to the clinic. After studying many similar cases, the doctor believes that Johnny’s increasing headaches indicate the need for him to return to a “controlled environment,” but Johnny refuses to go. One day, as Johnny concludes a tutoring session, Roger Stuart, an affluent man, approaches and requests that Johnny assist his son, Chris, who suffers from excessive shyness. The student and teacher quickly bond, and Roger is impressed by the swift headway Johnny has made with his son. However, when Johnny prophesies Chris’s death in a tragic ice hockey accident, Roger fires him. Johnny urges Roger to call off the ice hockey practice, but later finds that he did not, resulting in the death of two boys. Fortunately, Chris survived. After Sarah and her husband knock on Johnny’s door, campaigning for United States Senate candidate Greg Stillson, whom Roger called “dangerous,” Johnny attends a rally for the politician. There, Johnny shakes Stillson’s hand and experiences a vision of the future in which Stillson, as the President of the United States, launches a large-scale nuclear attack against the wishes of his cabinet. Shaken by the premonition, Johnny seeks council with Dr. Weizak and describes a curious phenomenon in his recent visions, the presence of an unseeable “blank spot” or “dead zone.” Dr. Weizak rationalizes that these “dead zones” represent the possibility that the future can be altered. Johnny poses a hypothetical question to Dr. Weizak, asking if he would kill Hitler before he rose to power, given the chance. Dr. Weizak replies that he would. Resolving himself to the idea that he must kill Stillson before his rise to power, Johnny mails Sarah a good-bye letter and departs with his rifle to a Stillson rally. Inside the building where the rally is set to take place, Johnny hunkers down in an empty balcony overlooking the stage. When he arrives, Stillson invites Sarah, who is holding her son Denny, to accompany him onstage. Sarah spots Johnny, as he emerges from his hiding place and takes aim on Stillson. She yells Johnny’s name, distracting him as he fires the first shot and misses. Stillson quickly grabs Denny and uses him as a human shield. Sonny Elliman, Stillson’s aide, returns fire and shoots Johnny multiple times, sending him over the balcony and onto the seats below. As Johnny lies dying, Stillson shakes him and demands, “Who sent you?” Johnny grabs Stillson’s hand and experiences a vision in which a magazine cover displays a photograph of Stillson using Sarah’s baby as a human shield, with the caption, “No Future for Stillson.” The magazine is soon splattered with blood as Stillson shoots himself in the head. Satisfied with this amended future, Johnny tells Stillson that he is finished. Stillson rages at his aide for allowing the compromising photograph to be taken. Sarah embraces Johnny, whispering “I love you” as he passes away. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

TOP SEARCHES

CASABLANCA

During World War II, Casablanca, Morocco is a waiting point for throngs of desperate refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Exit visas, which are necessary to leave the country, are at ... >>

CITIZEN KANE

Seventy-year-old newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane dies in his palatial Florida home, Xanadu, after uttering the single word “Rosebud.” While watching a newsreel summarizing the years during which Kane ... >>

REAR WINDOW

Laid up with a broken leg during the height of summer, renowned New York magazine photographer L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries enters his last week of home confinement, bored and ... >>

RAGING BULL

In 1941, at a boxing match in Cleveland, Ohio, pandemonium breaks out when Jake La Motta, an up-and-coming young boxer, loses a decision to Jimmy Reeves, suffering his first ... >>

CITY LIGHTS

At an outdoor dedication ceremony, a tramp is discovered sleeping in the arms of a statue as it is being unveiled before a crowd. He is chased into ... >>

The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.