The very first Dragon Ball Z movie, released in 1989, a whole 30 years prior to the most recent Dragon Ball movie. The colors are crisp, saturated, and show the highlights of Toriyama’s style — ultimately ushering in the wave of animation that would define the 90's.
This one is set between the events of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, serving as a prelude to the latter, evidenced by the film’s opening remark that Piccolo is going to “wipe the floor with Goku’s face” at the next World Tournament. At this point, Goku and Piccolo are the two strongest in the series, there are no golden hair theatrics or legions of children that characterize the later days of the franchise, even ki is largely absent from the fighting and vocabulary. Dead Zone is much more akin to Dragon Ball than Dragon Ball Z, with most of the focus being on the original characters, plus the addition of Goku’s toddler son, Gohan.
The run time is only 40 minutes, and Dead Zone wastes no time getting to work. Piccolo, the major antagonist of Dragon Ball, is killed off within five minutes, and Gohan is abducted shortly after. One of the more curious facets is when Gohan finds strange fruit at Garlic JR.’s castle, where he is being held captive. Garlic JR.’s henchman warns him not to eat it because he will become “weird”, and this initiates a drunken chase that lasts for several minutes before Gohan falls asleep. This is actually some of the first characterization of Gohan, since he is rather one-dimensional in the beginning of Dragon Ball Z, but it really is a strange moment in that it has almost no correlation to the rest of the film in tone or narrative.
One important piece of foreshadowing, though, is when Garlic JR. realizes the latent ability hidden in Gohan and decides to make him a disciple. This recognition of power would actually turn out to be true for the rest of the series, as Gohan nearly eclipses the main character in strength at several points.
The humor in this one is rare but very reminiscent of Dragon Ball, with some very Toriyama (read: juvenile) moments. When looking for Gohan, Goku and Krillin find him because he pisses off of a rafter onto Krillin’s head, the evil henchman, repeating Garlic JR.’s affirmations, gaffe and echo Goku looking for his son. These moments stand out because as the series evolves, we see less focus on the slapstick style of Dragon Ball for a more action-oriented series — further reinforcing the idea that this serves to segue from the old to the new. It seems that these moments find less and less of a foothold as the stakes get higher.
The most notable part of Dead Zone, however, is that it is not the standard fare DBZ formula of Goku saving the day after his allies are defeated by the Big Bad. On one hand, this is the first movie, so the trope had not even really been defined yet, but on the other hand it stands out even more in hindsight because of how little the series deviates from the formula in the later movies and series.
In this one, Goku’s allies really save him from failure. Piccolo and Krillin appear and assist Goku with retrieving Gohan, even Kami shows up to help, but ultimately toddler Gohan saves the day. I was pleasantly surprised by this because I figured if anything, the earlier movies would be all Goku, especially since the roster of Z-Fighters is still very small compared to the rest of the series.
Also of note is Piccolo and Goku teaming up for the final fight against the immortal Garlic JR. Until I read Dragon Ball I never knew the significance of the two teaming up in the Saiyan Arc, but chronologically this would be the first time they ever team up after being mortal enemies. When the two began fighting immediately after knocking Garlic JR. into the abyss, it really shows a clearer image of their early, antagonistic relationship than the Saiyan Arc did, and the plot is enhanced by it.
Dead Zone was surprisingly good, I did not expect it to hold up so well! The fights were very well animated, the backgrounds were gorgeous and detailed, overall very fun just to explore the early years of DBZ again. Aside from a few moments where sporadic humor awkwardly disrupts the flow, Dead Zone makes good use of its 40 minute runtime. Early, more evil Piccolo really wins points in my book.