The King of Dino: The Dead Zone and David Cronenberg

The King of Dino: The Dead Zone and David Cronenberg

Oh boy! My first real article! I'm going to be honest with you, Constant Readers, I wasn't sure where I wanted to start. There are 40 years, and nearly 300 iMDB entries to sift through. Do I start at the beginning with 1976's "Carrie", and move through the filmography chronologically? Well, maybe I want to cover brand new movies like "It" Chapter 2." Do I cover my favorite King adaptation, "The Shawshank Redemption" (an obvious choice, I know, but I saw it on TNT when I was 12, and it fundamentally changed me), and gush over its themes and subtext? Well, that movie turns 25 in October, and I am a sentimental kind of guy. Do I review the miniseries based on "The Stand", because the crew is covering the book on the podcast? I think those three are pretty keen, but once I start that, am I held to it? Do I do it for every book they cover? I decided to take the words of Fleetwood Mac, and go my own way (GO MY OWN WAY-AY!!!).

Pouring over the list, it dawned on me, there is only one movie that is pure Stephen King. One film that was written, directed, and produced by our man! "Maximum Overdrive"! What better way to start than with a movie that is 100% King? Then I started researching the movie. It turns out the story behind the film includes four other King adaptations that I would have to gloss over in order to talk about it, and I don't want to do that to you, Constant Readers. These films all revolve around super-producer Dino De Laurentiis, and his personal relationship with Stephen. So, while I would love to jump, both feet, into the coke-fueled genius of "Maximum Overdrive", there is a story to unfold before we get there. A story starts in a zone (ZONE! ZONE! ZONE!), "The Dead Zone" to be more specific. Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I present the saga of Stephen King as presented by Dino De Laurentiis: "The King of Dino".

PART 1:  A Very Good Place to Start

We start with Stephen King, who is a writer… wait… shit. That was a stupid way to start this. Good job, Paul… um… ok.

Stephen King released the novel, "The Dead Zone" on August 30, 1979. It was his fifth novel (not counting his two Bachman books) after "Carrie" (1974), "Salem's Lot" (1975), "The Shining" (1977), and "The Stand" (1978). I listed these so that I could illustrate how shocked I was to learn that "The Dead Zone" was King's first number one best seller. It does happen to be one of my personal favorites, but when most people think Stephen King, they think of at least 3 of those 4 books. It was just a bit of a surprise to find "The Shining" and "The Stand" weren't smash successes. But, I digress.

The film rights to this book are snapped up by Lorimar Productions, almost immediately, and Academy Award nominated director, Sydney Pollack, was going to produce. Lorimar producer Carol Baum hired a young screenwriter named Jeffrey Boam to write up a draft of the script, it was to be his second ever writing credit. She also wanted the popular horror director, David Cronenberg, to bring it to life. Pollack, on the other hand, had already talked with Hollywood legend, Stanley Donen, a man most famous for musicals such as "On the Town" and "Singing in the Rain," to take on the project. Boam said he worked closely with Donen to develop the story for the screen. Based on his Donen’s film "Charade", I would absolutely love to have seen this version. Unfortunately for my absurd and chaotic tastes, Donen dropped out before filming could take place, and Lorimar had to shut down its film division after string of theatrical flops. With the rights open, and big names interested in the project, in steps Dino De Laurentiis.

Dino De Laurentiis is an Italian born film producer, who had a 30+ year career in Italy, before he left for the bright lights of Hollywood. Through the ‘70’s he produced a few hits, including: “Death Wish” (1974), “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), and the remake of “King Kong” (1976). He also produced a lot of flops, but kept his film company afloat by using his European connections to sell overseas distribution rights to his movies. In 1981 and 1982, he had produced the sequels to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (Delicious Foreshadowing: More on Carpenter in our next article, Constant Readers), and developed a relationship with his co-producer, Debra Hill, and the two would work together on “The Dead Zone”. Hill, at this point, had only produced and written films alongside John Carpenter, who she was dating during the making of the first “Halloween” (less of an important fact, and more of an interesting one). 

Debra Hill suggests to Dino that he should bring on body horror master, David Cronenberg, who she didn’t realize was also the top pick for Carol Baum. Proving, again, that women have incredible taste in film, and the term “chick flick” is a patently stupid term… nope, nope. Sorry. That is a rant for a different time. De Laurentiis was on board, but wasn’t too enthralled with Jeffrey Boam’s script, and makes a call to Stephen King to write an adaptation himself. This script does not go over well with Cronenberg, who calls it “terrible”, and says, “It was basically a really ugly, unpleasant script.” Jeffrey Boam would add that King “missed the point of his own book.” After trying out another writer, Dino would bring back Jeffrey Boam to take another crack at it. 

Boam says that King’s script was a dual narrative that follows a serial killer, named the Castle Rock Killer, starting after protagonist, Johnny Smith, gets into an accident that leaves him in a coma for five years. This was the first thing that Boam threw out, deciding that he wanted to follow King’s novel in the aspect that he treat’s Johnny’s story as more episodic. Getting flashes of his life as he struggles to find the responsible ways to use his newly discovered psychic abilities. The writer approached the script as a triptych, and framed it in three acts: 1. Meeting Johnny, Johnny in his coma, and his recovery. 2. Finding the Castle Rock Killer. 3. Trying to stop rising political star, Greg Stillson, from causing a nuclear holocaust. David Cronenberg liked the idea, but wanted the script a little more condensed. Boam, Hill, and Cronenberg held meetings to strip back some of the elements that Cronenberg found unnecessary. The script was finalized November 8, 1982. They would begin shooting, on location, on January 10, 1983.

Part 2: In the “Zone”

Let’s talk about David Cronenberg for a moment. Cronenberg is a Canadian director that started his career by studying film at camera rental houses. He would use the knowledge he learned from these businesses to create two short films. He would team with the future director of “Ghostbusters”, Ivan Reitman, and actor Iain Ewing, to create a Toronto film Cooperative, and would get his films, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, funded by the Canadian government. 

David Cronenberg, as I hinted at above, was the progenitor of a style of horror that focused on graphic and psychologically disturbing violations of the human body, simply referred to as body horror. Before taking on “The Dead Zone”, he wrote and directed every film he would work on. He tackled subjects such as parasites turning tenants of an apartment building into sex crazed maniacs (“Shivers”), plastic surgery turning a woman into a zombie, and her infecting an enitre city (“Rabid”), and a TV executive's obsession with a channel that is broadcasting snuff films that sends him into a new, crazed reality that blurs the lines of his sanity (“Videodrome”). Just so you know, in the last one, the main character’s hand turns into a flesh gun, and his stomach turns into a vagina that functions as a VCR. And before you ask, yes, I own this movie on Blu-ray. 

So, what, you ask, would interest a man, who has his own counter culture tastes, and is the sole creative force of his art, to take on a script written by another person, based on the work of a third, different person? Isn't it obvious? He wanted relief from his own material. You read that correctly. A film about a man getting into a car accident, losing five years of his life, losing the woman he loved, gaining psychic abilities, hunting a serial killer, and trying to stop a presidential candidate from ending the world, was a relief. If you have seen “Scanners” or “Videodrome”, this might not come as a surprise.

Even though this film is more of a supernatural drama, it arguably does fit rather neatly into Cronenberg’s style of body horror. A character is subjected to grievous bodily injury, and then exposed to mental terrors through his newly gained abilities. Hell, the way John Smith is injured essentially turns into David Cronenberg’s 1996 film, “Crash” (not the one that won best picture). Throughout the story, Johnny becomes more gaunt and frail the more he uses his powers. You can see the mental and physical toll the visions are beginning to have on him. 

To help convey the weight of the script the film was shot in David Cronenberg’s home of Ontario, Canada, between January and March. Cronenberg wanted to keep the Maine setting of the novel, but wanted the feel of an endless winter. The snow covered settings were meant to capture the lack of warmth in Johnny’s life. We never see him in the spring or summer months to help convey the gloom that has befallen him. This also goes for the multiple recitations of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Raven”. A mirror of Johnny pining for his lost love. The Canadian landscape is made even more desolate with the help of cinematographer Mark Irwin, who shoots the film with a stunning brightness, that perfectly juxtaposes the darkness of Boam’s script. He and Cronenberg even sneak in some Noir shadows for some of the night scenes during the murder investigations. Seriously, that shot in the tunnel, where the characters stand over the latest victim of the Castle Rock Killer, could fit right into Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”.  

Breaking from fawning over David Cronenberg for a moment, I want to give a lot of love to Walken’s performance. He is a master of conveying the dreary isolation that encompasses Smith, as well as the early sweet natured side of him that enjoys roller coasters, and canoodling with his lady . He may have become his own punchline in recent decades, but this performance is a tour de force from a veteran actor that only ever seems to be able to ratchet up tension. Even after multiple viewings of the film, I am left sitting, half off of my seat, entranced by his range of emotion. 

This isn't to say that there aren't other performances of note. Brooke Adams playing Sarah Bracknell, Johnny's former lover, who is now married to another man, is a bright spot in the bleakness of the world. She takes a seemingly thankless role and injects it with so much warmth and humanity. Then there is Tom Skerritt playing Sheriff Bannerman. Though the character is cut back from his role in the book, Skerritt packs so much into such a short role. He is given such minimal screen time, but makes the role feel so essential to the mechanics of the story. Which isn’t shocking considering his sheer level of talent. Speaking of incredible talent, Martin Sheen playing the rising political candidate, Greg Stillson, steals every scene he is in. Whether he is playing the smarmy, but likeable, guy on the campaign trail, or the couple of scenes he gets to play an unhinged psychopath, he commands a screen like few actors really know how. He also cartoonishly hides behind a baby to save himself from being assassinated. I find that moment incredibly funny. 

I would be remiss if I tried to walk away without talking about Michael Kamen's terrific score for this flick. Though Cronenberg wanted his constant collaborator, Howard Shore, to create the music for the film, he was given Michael Kamen by the studio. While I will always wonder what Shore could have brought to the project, having Kamen certainly benefits the movie. Kamen's score begins with an eerie theme playing over scenic shots of rural settings, that are then covered in dead space that create the film's title, as if to suggest the evil that lies underneath the Grant Wood/Norman Rockwell Americana. It keys into, and helps ramp up, the mounting tension without overplaying the horror aspects. It lets scenes breathe, and never overtakes them. 

Part 3: Impact and Wrap Up

 “The Dead Zone” was made on a budget of 7 million dollars, and made 16 million at the box office. It wasn’t a runaway smash, but it made a profit, which was better than most of Dino De Laurentiis’s films at that time. With that level of success De Laurentiis decided to have Cronenberg create an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember For You Wholesale”. It was going to be the flagship film of De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (another subject we will touch on next time). Dino and his producing partner, Ron Sushett, didn’t like the direction David Cronenberg was going, even after about a dozen rewrites. Cronenberg says he was trying to recreate the Philip K. Dick story, and this did not please Sushett at all. The three couldn’t get on the same page, and that project eventually crumpled. Sushett would turn to his “Alien” co-writer, Dan O’Bannon, to finish that script, and we would eventually get Paul Verhoven’s “Total Recall”. David Cronenberg would go on to create his most popular film, the remake of “The Fly”.

Dino believed in the draw of Stephen King’s name so much that the producer made his name the most prominent on the poster for the film. Every piece of advertising read “Stephen King’s The Dead Zone.” You may be reading this now, and think, “Of course he did, Paul. It is Stephen King.” This had never been done before. Don’t forget, the novel was his first bestseller in 1979, and this was only the fourth big screen adaptation of his work. “Carrie” was done before he was a household name. “The Shining” was the newest film from a veteran, Oscar-nominated director, and was released only the year after “The Dead Zone” novel. “Cujo”, which was only released two months before this film, drew on the popularity of those previous films, which included King’s name, but it wasn’t considered the main draw. Dino believed in it, and now it is a staple of every horror adaptation. Less so with dramas such as “Stand By Me” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”

And, of course, this wasn’t the last film in the oeuvre of Dino De Laurentiis to be adapted from Stephen King’s work. This is only the first of six films they made together, and I plan to cover them all in this series. However, with everything Stephen King happening in the next couple of months, I will take my time dishing these articles out. October is “The Shawshank Redemption’s” 25th anniversay, November will see the release of “Doctor Sleep”, and next month will be the release of “It Chapter 2”. Join me next time, Constant Readers, as I review and discuss the themes for both chapters of Andy Muschietti’s “It”. 

Have a DAM fine day,

The MCH

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