Instead of spine-chilling special effects, most of the terror here is realized through the stength of the actors' performances. Compared to previous Cronenberg movies the acting here is more interior, more emotional and a deep sense of melancholia prevades throughout.
This may have been a conscious choice on behalf of the director whose previous movie 'Videodrome' wasn't such a success at the box office. He wanted to stay within the horror genre he knew but wished to reach a wider audience. What better way to do that than to adapt a story by the self-styled 'Big Mac of literature', Stephen King. Many regard 'The Dead Zone' as the finest cinematic adaption of a Stephen King story.
Oh and by the way, did anyone notice that at the beginning of the movie when Walken is teaching his English class he asks them to read 'The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow'? He would eventually play the headless horseman in Tim Burton's version of the tale.
Johnny first comes to terms with his power when he agrees to help the police discover the identity of an elusive serial killer walking the streets of Castle Rock (which, for some strange reason, is supposedly located in New Hampshire rather than Maine). This experience only makes him retreat farther into himself, compelling him to move to another town and try to begin a new life within the comfort of his own protective walls. A traumatic vision concerning one of the students he is tutoring leads him to discover a new aspect of his power, and this discovery comes just in time for him to make a difficult decision as to whether or not to sacrifice his own life in order to prevent a truly cataclysmic event from taking place in the future.
David Cronenberg directs this bleak but absorbing film, but don't expect the kind of gore Cronenberg is famous for, as this is not a gore-mired film by any means (although the deaths we do witness are pretty satisfyingly presented). The Dead Zone is a psychological study of human nature and a suspenseful thriller, not a horror movie per se. Martin Sheen leaves an unforgettable mark on the film with his portrayal of as slimy and dangerous a politician as you would ever want to meet (and, as a side note, impersonating Elvis Presley's voice apparently goes over big among New England voters for some reason).
A lot of care and detail went into the making of The Dead Zone, and it shows. The atmosphere is dark and palpable from start to finish, and Christopher Walken commands the viewer's rapt attention at all times. There are a number of very moving scenes, particularly in relation to Johnny's new relationship with his former fiancée, so don't be surprised if Walken coaxes a tear or two out of the corners of your eyes. Many of the early movies based on King novels did not translate to the big screen very effectively, but The Dead Zone is an often overlooked and very impressive exception.