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  Directed by
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  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.78:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English: Dolby Digital Surround
  Subtitles
  • None
  Extras
  • Animated menus - 16:9 Enhanced
  • Digitally remastered

The Dead Zone

Force Entertainment/Infogrames . R4 . COLOR . 99 mins . M . PAL

  Feature
Contract

For fans of Stephen King’s novels, one of the most frustrating experiences has always been that of sitting through a film or TV movie based on one of his books. Despite King’s reputation as a slash’n’burn horror writer, much of his work is far from standard fright fodder. Indeed, one reason for the popularity of his books is that King’s characters live and die by their thoughts - thoughts expressed eloquently and intricately on the printed page, but invariably lost in the translation to the screen.

Released in 1983, The Dead Zone is one of the few filmings of King’s work that stands comparison with the novel it’s based on. Directed by legendary (and also often misunderstood) Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, this film takes on board not only the bare bones of the novel’s story, but also its spirit. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie & Video Guide, expresses surprise that emotional work such as this could have emanated from the minds of King and Cronenberg, both of whom he (and many others) tags as purveyors of “blood-and-guts horror”. But with both writer and filmmaker, that’s so far from reality it would make a decent King story in itself.

The Dead Zone centres around the strange happenings in the life of generically-named teacher Johnny Smith (Walken), who is involved one night, through no fault of his own, in an horrific car accident, one which very nearly kills him. He wakes from a coma to frightening news - he’s been unconscious for five years, and his life has moved on without him. This is, however, not the only frightening thing that’s happened on vacation. For Mr Smith, as it turns out, has developed a rare gift during his time away from the world - a gift that everyone would say they’d love to have, but one that no-one could possibly live with. To say more would be to give away too much of the plot for those not familiar with either the book or the film, but suffice to say that this is one of King’s most imaginative ‘80s efforts, and it’s treated with respect and insight by Cronenberg, who crafts a terrific hybrid of thriller and psychological drama, using silence to make his point where others would have pumped up the proverbial subwoofer. If you’re new to films of King’s books, forget the likes of the woeful Christine - about as far away from its originating book as a film can get - and start here. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The casting here is excellent as well - Christopher Walken is at the peak of his remarkable talent as Smith, while a cast that features many familiar ‘80s movie faces gives solid support - particularly Brooke Adams, best known to latter-day filmgoers for her wonderful performance in Alison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging, who plays Smith’s could-have-been wife with admirable reserve. Retrospectively amusing for film fans is the fact that Walken’s character here quotes liberally from The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow - he would appear some 17 years later in Tim Burton’s film of the story as the Headless Horseman himself! Not to be outdone, Martin Sheen appears as a hopeful US senator and possible future President Greg Stillson; he did, of course, finally get to be President in the TV series The West Wing! And Tom Skerritt plays a small-town sheriff - one not at all dissimilar from the small-town sheriff he’d later play on the TV show Picket Fences. Cronenberg, it appears, was somewhat ahead of his time…!

This film was scripted from King’s novel by Jeffrey Boam, a skilled screenwriter who would later go on to pen the screenplays for films like The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade and the second and third instalments of the Lethal Weapon series.

Unlike many films from the early ‘80s, this one survives well without showing its age too much; the craftsmanship on show here helps greatly. For fans of King and Cronenberg as well as those who just love a good, intelligent thriller, this is a film you should see.

  Video
Contract

One caveat before I get into the video quality section: the review disc provided for The Dead Zone - a PMI factory “test disc” - was severely damaged on its playing side as received, thoroughly riddled with the tell-tale deep hairline scratches of a disc that’s been placed on a dirty surface unprotected. After some problems with disc tracking early in the film, the disc eventually stopped playing altogether after disintegrating into a mess of random pixels. This is not an indication of the mastering quality of this disc; I mention it only because the damage prevented me from viewing the final third of the film in this case. And it’s a shame, too - the first Infogrames disc I’ve seen looks to be a cracker of a DVD for fans of the film. Needless to say, though, I will not be taking any points off in this review for some anonymous, careless user’s mistreatment of the disc.

Fans of The Dead Zone - as well, of course, as new viewers - are in for a treat here, with a video transfer that borders on the superb, especially given the age of this 1983-release, relatively low-budget film. Infogrames - better known as a video game distributor - have licensed this one from Paramount, who still, in February 2001, have not released a single DVD in the Australian marketplace, That’s a shameful situation, and you can be fairly certain that had Infogrames not put this title out, we never would have seen it in Australia on DVD.

The video transfer here is most likely the same one used for Paramount’s region 1 release, and the menu design implies that much of the DVD authoring has stayed the same as well. What you’ll get here is a pristine hi-def transfer from the best available source. There are few film artifacts to be seen (most of them are found in the opening titles, done in post-production with yesterday’s technology) and while there’s a bit of compression-induced shimmer at times, it’s not distracting. Throughout, colours are rich and flesh tines are warm, something not normally associated with films from this era - but then, most of the times that we see films from this era, they’re from ancient, fatally-flawed video transfers. This disc is about as good as The Dead Zone is going to look, and in some ways it outdoes many video transfers of contemporary films.

  Audio
Contract

Two audio tracks are provided: a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Dolby Surround 2.0 track. The 5.1 effort sounds very much like it was freshly prepared for the DVD release; while the 2.0 track is clean enough, it’s laden with tape hiss and audio compression, while its 5.1 counterpart is pristine, belying its age. The 5.1 track doesn’t actually offer six discrete channels: with a configuration of left-center-right and mono surround (the LFE channel was most likely generated artificially in mastering) this is almost certainly a near-direct transfer from the almost-forgotten 4-track 35mm magnetic audio format.

I highly recommend that everyone go with the 5.1 track, whether Dolby Digital equipped or not. Aside from the 5.1 mix’s crisper sound and lower tape hiss, there’s another bonus - the correct audio pitch. If you’ve ever wondered what the PAL soundtrack speed-up does to a film’s soundtrack, here’s your chance to find out, for while the 2.0 track is higher in pitch as is the norm for PAL video versions of films, the 5.1 track appears to have been pitch-corrected (or, more accurately, time-compressed) so as to keep the audio at the correct pitch. This is HIGHLY commendable, and something I personally would like to see a lot more of in the future.

  Extras
Contract

No extras here, folks, aside from a theatrical trailer (MPAA warning intact) and some neato animation in the otherwise poorly-authored chapter-select screens (is it too much to ask for the right and left arrow keys to take us from page to page? Thought not). In comparison to Paramount’s US release, all you’re missing out on here is a French language track and English subtitles (there are no subtitles on this disc).

  Overall  
Contract

A terrific, understated filming of a compelling Stephen King novel written at the height of that author’s creativity, The Dead Zone has been exceptionally well treated for its DVD release, offering even those who’ve seen it many times before a chance to see the film the way the director intended. While they may not have had much to do with the actual transfer or the authoring of this DVD, Infogrames are to be commended for giving Australian film fans access to a high-quality version of a film that DVD fans would otherwise have had to import from the US, at no small cost.


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