The plot revolves around a schoolteacher, Johnny Smith (Walken), who awakens from a coma to find he has psychic powers. A critical and financial success, the film became the basis for a television series of the same name in the early 2000s, starring Anthony Michael Hall.
In the town of Castle Rock, Maine, Johnny Smith, a young schoolteacher, is in love with his colleague Sarah Bracknell. After having a headache following a ride on a roller-coaster, Johnny politely declines when Sarah asks if he wants to spend the night with her. As he drives home through stormy weather, Johnny has a car accident that leaves him in a coma. He awakens under the care of neurologist Dr. Sam Weizak and finds that five years have passed and that Sarah has married and had a child.
Johnny also discovers that he now has the psychic ability to learn a person's secrets through physical contact with them. As he touches a nurse's hand, he has a vision of her daughter trapped in a fire. He also sees that Weizak's mother, long thought to have died during World War II, is still alive, and that a reporter's sister killed herself.
As news of his "gift" spreads, Johnny is asked by a sheriff for help with a series of murders, but he wants to be left alone and therefore declines. Sarah visits with her infant son and she and Johnny consummate their previous relationship. Having a change of heart, Johnny agrees to help the sheriff and, through a vision at the crime scene, he discovers that the sheriff's own deputy is the killer. Before they can arrest him, the deputy kills himself. Johnny is then shot by the man's mother, who in turn is killed by the sheriff.
A disillusioned Johnny, now barely able to walk, moves away and attempts to live a more isolated life. He takes on tutoring jobs for children, working from home until a wealthy man named Roger Stuart implores him to come visit his son. Johnny and the boy, Chris, quickly form a friendship but, after seeing a vision of a boy falling through ice and drowning during a hockey game, Johnny warns Stuart not to let the boy go. Stuart ignores him, but Chris believes him and stays home. Two boys die during the trip, proving Johnny right. Johnny then realizes he has a "dead zone" in his visions, where he can actually change the future.
Johnny attends a rally for Greg Stillson, a third party candidate for the United States Senate, for whom Sarah and her husband volunteer. Johnny shakes Stillson's hand and has a vision of him becoming president and ordering a nuclear strike against Russia that brings on a nuclear holocaust. He seeks Weizak's advice, asking, by way of example, if he would have killed Adolf Hitler if he had the chance, knowing in advance the atrocities Hitler would commit. Weizak replies that he would have had no choice but to kill him. Johnny leaves Sarah a letter, telling her that what he is about to do will cost him his life, but that it will be a sacrifice he is willing to make.
Johnny loads a rifle and takes aim at Stillson at a rally. His shot misses the target, but Stillson grabs Sarah's baby and holds him as a human shield. A photographer snaps a picture of Stillson holding the baby just as Johnny is shot by a security guard. Confronted by an angry Stillson, a fatally wounded Johnny grabs his hand. He now foresees Stillson's reputation and political ambitions being ruined; after the photograph of his cowardly act is published, Stillson will then shoot himself. Johnny tells Stillson he's finished. Sarah embraces Johnny and tells him she loves him as he dies.Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith
Brooke Adams as Sarah Bracknell
Tom Skerritt as Sheriff George Bannerman
Herbert Lom as Dr. Sam Weizak
Anthony Zerbe as Roger Stuart
Colleen Dewhurst as Henrietta Dodd
Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson
Nicholas Campbell as Deputy Frank Dodd
Simon Craig as Chris Stuart
Géza Kovács as Sonny
Lorimar Film Entertainment began developing The Dead Zone film adaptation. Producer Carol Baum gave the book to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam and asked him to write a screenplay. "I saw it had great possibilities and agreed to do it," Boam said. He developed a script with director Stanley Donen, who left the project before the film reached production at Lorimar. Lorimar eventually closed its film division after a series of box-office failures, and soon after producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights to The Dead Zone. He initially disliked Boam's screenplay and asked King to adapt his own novel. De Laurentiis reportedly rejected King's script as "involved and convoluted.", however David Cronenberg, who ultimately directed the film, said that he was the one who decided not to use the script, finding it "needlessly brutal". De Laurentiis rejected a second script by Andrei Konchalovsky, eventually returning to Boam. The film was finally on track to be made when De Laurentiis hired producer Debra Hill to work with Cronenberg and Boam.
Boam abandoned King's parallel story structure for The Dead Zone's screenplay, turning the plot into separate episodes. Boam told writer Tim Lucas in 1983, "King's book is longer than it needed to be. The novel sprawls and it's episodic. What I did was use that episodic quality, because I saw The Dead Zone as a triptych." His script was revised and condensed four times by Cronenberg, who eliminated large portions of the novel's story, including plot points about Johnny Smith having a brain tumor. Cronenberg, Boam, and Hill had script meetings to revise the screenplay page by page. Boam's "triptych" in the screenplay surrounds three acts: the introduction of Johnny Smith before his car accident and after he awakes from a coma, a story about Smith assisting a sheriff track down the Castle Rock Killer, and finally Johnny deciding to confront the politician Stillson. Boam said that he enjoyed writing the character development for Smith, having him struggle with the responsibility of his psychic abilities, and ultimately give up his life for the greater good. "It was this theme that made me like the book, and I particularly enjoyed discovering it in what was essentially a genre piece, a work of exploitation," he said. In Boam's first draft of the screenplay, Johnny doesn't die at the end, but rather has a vision about the Castle Rock Killer, who is still alive and escaped from prison. Cronenberg insisted that this "trick ending" be revised. Boam submitted the final draft of the screenplay on November 8, 1982.
King is reported to have told Cronenberg that the changes the director and Boam made to the story "improved and intensified the power of the narrative."
Before Christopher Walken was officially cast as Johnny Smith, Bill Murray was originally considered for the role. In fact, Murray was King's first choice for the role.
The film was shot in the Greater Toronto Area and Regional Municipality of Niagara of Cronenberg's native Ontario, Canada where some of its temporary props and structures are still in place. The so-called Screaming Tunnel, located in nearby Niagara Falls, Ontario, was also used as the backdrop for one scene. The school where Johnny teaches in the beginning of the film is Summitview P.S., located in Stouffville, Ontario. The gazebo, where quite a few scenes were filmed, was deemed unsafe and dismantled in September 2015 (a replica was immediately built afterwards).
According to a David Cronenberg interview on the DVD, The Dead Zone was filmed during a relentless deep freeze in Southern Ontario which lasted for weeks, creating an authentic atmosphere of subzero temperatures and icy snow-packed terrain, which made for great natural shooting locations in spite of it being almost too cold for cast and crew to tolerate at times. Canada's Wonderland, a theme park which is 30 km north of Toronto's city limits, was also used as a filming location.
In an interview on the Dirty Harry DVD set, director John Badham said that he was attached to direct the film at one stage, but pulled out as he felt the subject matter was irresponsible to show on screen.
The music soundtrack, composed by Michael Kamen, was recorded by The National Philharmonic Orchestra, London at the famous EMI Abbey Road Studios. Michael Kamen conducted the recording sessions; the orchestra was contracted and led by Sidney Sax. This is the only Cronenberg film since The Brood (1979) for which Howard Shore did not serve as composer.
The Dead Zone was granted very favorable reviews, holding a 90% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The site's consensus reads, " The Dead Zone combines taut direction from David Cronenberg and a rich performance from Christopher Walken to create one of the strongest Stephen King adaptations".
Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three and a half stars, describing The Dead Zone as by far the best of the half-a-dozen cinematic adaptation of King's novels to that date. He praised Cronenberg's direction for successfully weaving the supernatural into the everyday, and noted believable performances by the entire cast, especially Walken: "Walken does such a good job of portraying Johnny Smith, the man with the strange gift, that we forget this is science fiction or fantasy or whatever and just accept it as this guy's story." Janet Maslin of The New York Times referred to the film as "a well-acted drama more eerie than terrifying, more rooted in the occult than in sheer horror."