Remedial Film School: Finding Donald Trump in The Dead Zone with Nathan Rabin

By  · Published on September 29th, 2015

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School, a notable film critic or personality assigns me (and you) one movie to watch every month.

Nathan Rabin, author and critic formerly of The Dissolve, is our guest this month, and he chose The Dead Zone — the David Cronenberg-directed take on Stephen King’s novel where Christopher Walken becomes a psychic detective.

“You cowardly bastard! You’re not the voice of the people, I am the voice of the people! The people speak through me, not you!” (Rabin explains):

The Dead Zone is fascinating to me because it represents a collaboration behind someone who is without a doubt the single most successful and commercial writer in the history of horror, if not books as a whole – Stephen King – and David Cronenberg, a man who seems to prize himself on the alienating, off-putting, wildly non-commercial nature of his work. The man made a movie about people fucking cars for chrissakes, that was even less commercial than The Counselor.

In that respect, The Dead Zone is a fascinating anomaly to me. It’s as close as Cronenberg would come to directing a mainstream, commercial Hollywood movie and for me (The Fly may have been a much deserved hit, but good lord what a disgusting, repellent and amazing motion picture that is), what makes The Dead Zone so compelling, beyond King’s almost preternatural gift for storytelling and narratives that resonate with a massive cross-section of the American public, is the way Cronenberg balances his well-worn obsessions with biological horror, with diseases and spiritual and physical corruption, with strange obsessives and their punishing quests, with the demands of making a film average American moviegoers might actually pay money to see.

The first part of the movie, before the accident, is the least compelling and least distinctive. But after the endless coma, the protagonist stops being a handsome, considerate schoolteacher and becomes the Christopher Walken we all know and love: a deeply troubled space cadet with an aura that ineffably but powerfully conveys that something is horribly awry and can never be made right again.

He stops being a Stephen King everyman and becomes one of Cronenberg’s crazed, tortured and psychologically and physically tormented oddballs. Just by looking at him, you can tell that something is deeply unwell, and once he opens his mouth – well, there’s a reason this is one of Walken’s most iconic roles and why it helped transform him from a quirky character actor to a deathless icon of craziness. As a first timer, how did watching this strange meeting of the minds square with your established opinions of King, Cronenberg and Walken?

“Your father says there’s something wrong with you, he wants me to bring you out of your shell. I don’t know what to do.” (Bayer watches):

If Walken, Cronenberg and King announced they were making a movie together today, would it be a bigger deal?

I was seven and had zero awareness of this film. I’m not sure how or why I hadn’t seen it yet, but I didn’t even realize Cronenberg and King were involved in The Dead Zone. The worst part about not seeing this movie sooner? Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic.

That’s right. The Saturday Night Live sketch performed by Walken. I never knew there was another layer to the joke. I feel so ashamed. OK, back to The Dead Zone.

Seeing 1983 Walken, with his hair combed straight down (in the beginning of the film) is completely jarring. Knowing that we are waiting for him to be in a coma made the first 10 minutes drag a little, but then again, I’m kind of insane when it comes to spoilers.

Speaking of “kind of insane,” easily the most upsetting thing that happens in the first 15 minutes isn’t the car crash, it’s the chapped lips. Johnny (Walken) awakens from a five-year-coma with some terrible looking chapped lips. Sure, Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom) seems nice, but how did he let this happen? Where are the nurses? After a few years, did they start slacking? Can you tell I always carry ChapStick?

After Johnny uses his newly found psychic abilities twice, Dr. Weizak pretty much proclaims Johnny to be a superhero. It feels like this could be a rapid fire film, where he’s solving a ton of crimes, but then Sarah (Brooke Adams) comes back in the picture. Listen Sarah, telling Johnny that you think he would like your new husband is not a nice thing to say. Next thing you know she’s showing Johnny the baby, which isn’t his, hooks up with him, then tells him this isn’t happening again. I don’t like Sarah! Also, did you happen to notice the toddler was sitting in the front seat of the car? I love the ‘80s.

Martin Sheen is a great jolt of energy, but there are simply some odd things with this film. For example, it appears Roger hires Johnny for his teaching, and not his psychic powers. People, if you’re going to hire Johnny, and you know he has these abilities, don’t ask him to ignore them. Also, boobs are tossed into this movie because I love the ‘80s.

I loved the scissor suicide. It’s impressively pulled off and definitely feels like that moment is the best marriage of King and Cronenberg.

There is also a potential trend for me. “Guys with Canes Movies.” Right now, I’m at two in a row with Daniel Day-Lewis in A Room with a View and now Walken in The Dead Zone. We’ll see how long this lasts.

The film seems like it is just scratching the surface. It’s probably the film I’m most happy to have seen because of the Remedial Film School column so far, but it has it’s flaws. It almost makes me want to check out Anthony Michael Hall in the TV show. Almost. Instead, let’s remake it. How about Ryan Reynolds as Johnny. Walken now plays Dr. Sam Weizak. The sheriff can be Diane Lane, and Sheen’s politician is Joseph Gordon Levitt. Disagree? Give me your cast. Here’s the twist … Make all of the people and all of the events connected, but Johnny (and the audience) doesn’t realize it until the very end.

Bayer’s Movie Score: 6/10

“The missiles are flying. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” (Rabin responds):

It’s funny that you mention Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic because Walken’s wonderful appearances on Saturday Night Live played a huge role in Walken’s evolution, or de-evolution, from brilliant character actor to goofy, endlessly mocked and impersonated figure of fun. As one of Walken’s signature performances, The Dead Zone played a big role in making Walken our nation’s official eccentric, but he hadn’t yet made the journey into complete self-parody at the time, so there’s a loneliness and a sense of estrangement from the world – the sense that he does not belong to the land of the living or the land of the dead – that lends The Dead Zone a tragic air. It’s about a gift that’s a terrible curse and fulfills a public good even as it destroys a strange, sensitive man.

Would the pairing of King, Cronenberg and Walken have the same impact today? I don’t think that it would. There have been so many terrible King adaptations that his name has lost some of its luster, even as he continues to turn out work that is relevant, important and popular, and the only Cronenberg film I’ve seen over the past half decade was Maps To The Stars, which was terrible in a tone-deaf, humorless, heavy-handed kind of way.

And Walken, well, he’s Christopher Walken, public kook, as much as he’s one of the all-time greats.

And I got an additional kick out of watching The Dead Zone in 2015 because the gallingly immoral populist pandering politician reminded me so much of Donald Trump. And while I do not think The Dead Zone needs to be remade, or should be remade, I’d love to see Trump stunt-cast in the Sheen role and Michael Shannon or Kevin Corrigan in the Walken role. They’re the closest we have to contemporary equivalents to Walken, and for the Brooke Adams role, fuck it, let’s bring Adams back in the same role. It’ll confuse people but maybe they deserve to be confused.

“I’m not getting better. I’m getting worse.” (Bayer concludes):

I love Michael Shannon. Yes, he’s in, Reynolds is out. But for you who don’t think Reynolds could pull this off, it means you probably haven’t seen The Voices. I can’t wait to see what happens with Trump (as long as the answer isn’t “President”). Yes, the Trump and Sheen comparisons are definitely there, and I am pretty sure Trump wouldn’t even realize it was stunt-casting. I just went back to see the last “great” Cronenberg, and it’s been eight years (Eastern Promises).

It is weird to think of the turn Walken has taken. He has become eternal with this persona. Thankfully, it’s not the same affect as, say, De Niro with his comedies. There are young kids who only know De Niro as an old guy in wacky comedies. That’s insane to me. At least we’re still getting interesting things from Walken (Seven Psychopaths), though if he was ever to achieve “normality” in a role, we would probably look at it as a stunt.

Even though this wasn’t a film I loved, it seems like the most important one I have seen for Remedial Film School. There was a space missing in my film knowledge, and with Rabin’s help, it Walken gap has been filled. Thank you, Rabin.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Scott Weinberg selected Near Dark (1987). This man knows horror more than anyone else I know. The problem is, Near Dark is very difficult to find right now. You have to go to something called your local “video store” to see it. Your due date is Thursday, October 31. See you then.

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