"The Dead Zone" seems to be a fatal case of triple overspecialization. Director David Cronenberg and author Stephen King have been laboring in the Creepy Zone long enough to be in grave danger of becoming drudgy, predictable fixtures.
The leading man, Christopher Walken, is already crossing psychic frontiers in Douglas Trumbull's "Brainstorm," a more intriguing and reputable example of a defective supernatural thriller. In "The Dead Zone" the acquisition of extraordinary mental powers has a deglamorizing effect on Walken, transforming him into a sensitive, suicidal zombie. The most expressive feature of his performance is probably his hair, which is brushed down flat at the start and keeps rising in mysterious gradations throughout the story.
This movie looks as cramped and feels as stale as a shot-by-the-numbers television feature. It betrays the usual inexpressive dependence on closeups, depriving the characters of an adequate, ongoing immersion in social and domestic backgrounds, and it moves at the tempo of a funeral procession. The creepiest aspect of the presentation is Cronenberg's stultifying deliberation, which suggests supervision by some alien or disembodied entity.
The early episodes suggest a sex-change variation on "Carrie," with Walken as the virginal hysteric, but the plot veers off on tangents that crib halfheartedly from "Miss Lonelyhearts" and "The Manchurian Candidate." Walken enters as a Mr. Chipmunk of a high school English teacher named Johnny Smith whose ho-hum existence is portentously altered by an auto accident that leaves him in a prolonged coma. Returning to consciousness, Johnny learns from his fanatically devout mother (Jackie Burroughs of "The Grey Fox," preparing the way for a Carrie's Mom reprise that proves a waste of effort, since her character is abruptly knocked off) that he's lost five years. The most painful revelation is the defection of his fiance', Sarah, a fellow teacher played by Brooke Adams, who eventually got discouraged and is now married and the mother of little boy.
The castaway soon discovers that he possesses strange premonitory powers, which are triggered when he clasps the hands of other people. He sees a nurse's child in danger of burning alive, shocks doctor Herbert Lom with the information that his long-lost mother is still alive and traces a murderer after clutching the victim's hand. These wonders bring swarms of supplicants clamoring for his assistance, a burden he can't face. He moves to a neighboring town and finds work as a tutor but can't escape the call of the supernatural. An alarming handshake with a Yahoo political candidate (Martin Sheen, paying more ideological dues by pretending to be a rampaging demagogue) convinces him that this man must be stopped to avert global thermonuclear war. He resolves to become an assassin for the sake of an unsuspecting electorate.
As a practical matter, this dreadful sense of mission is trivialized from the outset by the fact that Sheen's demagogue, Greg Stillson, would be hard-pressed to win an election for town bully, which might as well be what he's running for, judging from the attendance level at his rallies. This miscalculation, which introduces a fundamentally ugly and very ill-timed note of justification for assassination into the picture, is merely the last bluff in a cycle of heedless ante-raising. DEAD ZONE
Directed by David Cronenberg; produced by Debra Hill; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam (based on the novel by Stephen King); music by Michael Kamen. Presented by Dino De Laurentiis for Paramount Pictures Corp. THE CAST Christopher Walken . . . Johnny Smith Brooke Adams . . . Sarah Bracknell Tom Skerritt . . . George Bannerman Herbert Lom . . . Dr. Weizak Anthony Zerbe . . . Roger Stuart Colleen Dewhurst . . . Nicholas Campbell's mother Nicholas Campbell . . . Frank Dodd Martin Sheen . . . Gregg Stillson