Greg Stillson: "The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, Hallelujah!"
1983 was still a pretty good year for horror and genre fans, and a bad one for ordinary people. Director David Cronenberg did this film back-to-back with his other political film, Videodrome, and they both compliment each other in their statements on the rightist and authoritarian threat to liberty in North America.
The Reagan revolution's effects were being felt by Latin Americans, the urban poor, small farmers, minorities, women, deinstitutionalized inmates of state asylums, the working-class, and the Cold War was heating-up again with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As the GOP were in-power, the rich got much richer. However, the corruption of the Reagan years has been handily eclipsed by the administration of George W. Bush.
Reagan was never truly popular, but managed to sneak into office due to voter apathy. The rest is bunting and chest-beating by his backers, and he was elected by a slim majority of eligible voters. The arms race (reignited by Carter) was being accelerated by Reagan to a frightening degree, and we were funding death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, Asia, Africa, and Nicaragua. Those who noticed the insanity were watching the skies again, just as they did during the Cuban Missile Crisis (which was the fault of the GOP and Kennedy, making Sheen a proper choice). Things were pretty grim, and there was a recession. In this context, The Dead Zone did well at the box-office, and is still remembered fondly as one of the best King movies.
Politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) is a progressive, seemingly "Populist" politician, but in-appearance only. In reality, Stillson is a ruthless criminal who uses intimidation, blackmail, and any means he can use to achieve power. This is a very grim portrait of North American politics, and at a time when Reaganism was sweeping-through the culture; all of it still resonates strongly today. We may never know how close America has brushed-up with a "Stillson scenario," though Boam and Cronenberg seem to be suggesting that this is commonplace.
King's and Boam's allusions to Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe are powerful and fitting for such a fateful and psychological tale, which gives the film a wider sense of scope. It has something important to say about North American culture that defies any simple explanations--I could write an entire book on this film, and still be left with more to explain, it is that rich a tale. Above everything, however, it is a tale of loss and of what could have been. Americans know the tragedy of this all too well.
Jeffrey Boam and David Cronenberg took Stephen King's "Rip Van Winkle" retelling, and made it much-much more--a parable of 1983, but also of our common era. Like most good-literature, nothing-is-as-it-seems in the "Dead Zone", but entering into this is the character Johnny (played beautifully by Christopher Walken). Without any supernatural-explanations, Cronenberg gives us a character who is somehow able to penetrate the deceptions in life and what is hidden in the lives of the people he encounters (and touches). Basically, Johnny is an instrument of fate. His role is to stop a local murderer, as well as to stop Greg Stillson from attaining power, and here, all of the authors suggest that destiny and fate limit the structure of our lives. It has been remarked (apocryphally, by Steven Spielberg, a director who fears Cronenberg's depth) that the film's storyline supports the notion of assassination--it absolutely does, and unapolegetically. It also posits--like King's book--that not all people who appear insane or eccentric are wrong in their different take on reality.
For many Americans--and one can suppose, Canadians too--someone like Stillson reaching the pillars of power and authority is impossible, unthinkable. It shouldn't seem "impossible" after George W. Bush, a phony Populist if there ever was one. His resemblance to the character Greg Stillson is eerie, and he is not alone. Boam, King and Cronenberg insisted in 1983 that "this is possible", and that only an ordinary man, poised by providence, can affect the course of this path to destruction. Will the evil end entirely? Cronenberg and Boam don't answer this, but Stillson's and Johnny's journeys and destinies have. This is because they were intertwined. Evil and destruction never truly end, and neither does the resistance to it.
This movie was a "hire" job for David Cronenberg, and yet it so resembles the political and social-implications of all of his work from his early period, a strange fact. Often, the "adversaries" in his films are faceless, or murky, only showing themselves at the right moment to strike. His adversaries are often social forces, and trends, often disembodied and invisible. The 1980s were simply an ugly and vulgar era, with a lot of submerged politics--like Iran-Contra, where even drug-running was alleged in funding Reagan allies in Nicauragua. Reagan said, "We don't negotiate with terrorists," and did just-that! Today, it is safe-to-assume that much-worse is being done in our names, and only needs uncovering by the bravest amongst-us. Johnny shows that there is a price in this ability; he dies-a-piece with every revelation he is privy to, and he's almost like a missionary or a Civil Rights worker, or a saint.
Most of the philosophical arguments and implications are dealt-with in the dialog between Johnny and his rehabilitation counselor (Herbert Lom, in one of his greatest performances). What would you do if you knew who the next Hitler was, and could do something about it? Lom has the perfect answer: "I am a doctor...I love people...but, I would have to kill the son-of-a-bitch." The politics of the film are very clear, but so are the consequences of the sacrifice.This is why so few people ever "rise-to-the-occasion" to fight an encroaching evil. It is simply easier not to. Even nonviolence is basically a cop-out when you're facing an enemy who proves we're in a universe without morality. Johnny Smith is a messianic figure, and a revolutionary one who must eschew an ordinary life (this is where some of the "loss" figures-in).
The subtext of covert political activity is always there, waiting to be discovered, and fought, by ordinary people. And so, the horror of this film is a political horror, our political nightmare. It is the revelation that flies-in-the-face of homespun, North American values of fair-play and hard work--that many of those who wish to govern us do not wish us well, but quite-the-opposite: they wish us death, ultimately, the logical conclusion of the will to power.
This was a post-Watergate lesson we have conveniently forgotten, but are now reawakening to, and that is the horror we all face. Cronenberg made a classic that will continue to affect caring people profoundly, it speaks-to our hopes and our fears. The Dead Zone also speaks to our regrets in this vale-of-tears, an oddly "Puritan" message, but it fits the story's locale. The late Michael Kamen's score is both moving and warm, and the film would be very cold indeed without it. The TV series is worthless. It has nothing to say.