Maximum Overdrive (1986) – Directed by Stephen King – Starring Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington, Yeardley Smith, Frankie Faison, Leon Rippy, John Short, Holter Graham, Ellen McElduff, Giancarlo Esposito, Marla Maples, and Stephen King.
Everything about MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is awesome.
I know Stephen King has said that he was “coked out of his mind” while making his directorial debut and that the film currently has a 17% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but I watched the hell out of this movie as a kid, and it’s definitely a movie that holds up well into adulthood.
MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE sits firmly in the “trapped location” sub genre of Stephen King’s oeuvre, and while it may not have the characterization of The Shining or The Mist, it’s got the Green Goblin’s face on the grill of a big rig and an AC/DC soundtrack.
King’s film is the cinematic equivalent of a dusty old mass market paperback you find at a used bookstore on vacation and fall into right away. A comet is making a pass by the Earth and the planet gets stuck in its tail. As a result, machines start coming to life and killing people. A group of truckers, travelers, and workers get stuck together at a truck stop, unable to leave because a set of big rigs circle the stop, letting no one out and eventually forcing them to pump fuel into the trucks to keep them running. Brett (Laura Harrington) is the first to suggest the comet is the cause, and later Billy (Emilio Estevez) posits this is a hostile takeover by aliens, prepping the Earth for their arrival.
We don’t ever hear from or see the aliens, and the survival of the truck stop crowd doesn’t save the world (that’s handled by a weaponized Russian satellite off-camera), and I like the idea that the conflict we get to see is just one of many certainly taking place all over the planet.
OVERDRIVE is a great example of how to mix genres. It is a horror film, with the emphasis on horror instead of terror or revulsion, but there’s also a good bit of campiness and human drama mixed in. King’s horror always works best when it focuses on the consequence of the horror on individuals, on what horror reveals to us about ourselves, and while OVERDRIVE isn’t The Shining and while King might have been coked out of his mind, he can’t escape who he is. Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle) owns the Dixie Boy truck stop and runs it like his own personal kingdom; he’s got several paroled criminals on the payroll and makes them put in extra, unclocked time under the threat of turning them into their parole officer and sending them back to jail. Hendershot’s control over his employees starts to unravel in the presence of a greater power taking the guise of all these living trucks.
There’s plenty of smaller character moments amidst all the trucks running over people and shooting people and just generally menacing the world. The first morning after the trucks come to life, Bubba comes out from his office, tucking in his shirt, with his waitress, Wanda (Ellen McElduff), on his heels. There’s a clear implication they were having sex, and King doesn’t feel the need to show that coupling, letting the audience’s brain do that work for him. We just see the tucking in of shirts, and then Wanda running outside to repeat her “We made you!” protest after Bubba has been cut down by a newly-arrived U.S. Military M274 Mule truck fitted with a machine gun. A Dixie Boy mechanic that’s been showing some interest in Wanda is distraught, and has to be held back from getting himself shot alongside her. It’s a small moment – or really, a series of small moments – and if you’re a lazy viewer, these bits can go right past you, but they are there, and this one isn’t alone.
I like how the relationship between Billy and Brett unfolds; King gives their scenes a ’50s vibe, as if Estevez and Harrington are doing King’s version of Rebel Without a Cause inside a horror movie. Billy is an ex-con trying to stay straight and Brett is a girl hitching her way to Florida just so she’s not wherever she used to be.
Newlyweds Curtis and Connie (John Short and Yeardley Smith) go from bickering to loving at the drop of a hat. We get a hint that these two are more than the loving young Southern newlyweds right off the bat. After they decide the world has gone crazy and they’re going to stop at the Dixie Boy, Connie says that’s a good plan because she needs to pee, to which Curtis replies, “Can I come in and watch?” Connie says no and Curt isn’t just pretend-disappointed, but actually disappointed.
Because this is something you want to see? Is this why I’m not married?
(For the record, the only person in the movie who watches someone else doing their business in the film is Billy.)
Connie screeches constantly, but it’s usually because she’s either frightened or concerned about Curtis. There’s a great scene in the Dixie Boy where the survivors can hear the screams of a traveling salesman they thought had died earlier, and Curtis volunteers himself to go get the man. Connie tells him no, and says one of the other big tough guys can go save him, but the other truckers (their faces hidden in shadow, proving that a coked out King or his cinematographer could still do more than point a camera and say, “Action.”) want no part of the rescue mission. Right up until Curtis and Billy hit the back door, Connie is screeching at him, but when she finally realizes she can’t stop him from going, she turns quiet, asking him not to make her a widow on her wedding night.
Or when Deke (Hunter Graham) uses a gun to destroy a fast food ordering board that is alerting the other machines to their presence in order to enact a small bit of revenge for a truck killing his dad, and then gives his weapon to Brett, saying, “I don’t want this anymore.”
There’s are all small moments but they’re variations of the classic King approach, as is the fact that everyone stays in character. When people do things in MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, it’s because that’s what these people would actually do, based on how King has established them. When the truckers who refused to help Curtis and Billy save the salesman come around, it’s only after Billy, Curtis, Brett, Deke, and a few others have spent all day in the scorching pumping gas into the rigs to stop the trucks from killing them.
King makes an appearance, too. After the opening shot of a bank’s message board flashing, “9:48 … 78 degrees … 9:48 … 78 degrees … FUCK … YOU … FUCK … YOU,” King approaches an ATM machine and the screen flashes, “YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE” at him. Elsewhere in the film we get brief cameos from Giancarlo Esposito and Marla Maples before we knew them as Giancarlo Esposito and Marla Maples. For those scoring at home, this means Marla Maples’ 1986 included definitely getting smushed by a watermelon in MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and allegedly starting an affair with Donald Trump.
You decide which was the lowlight.
AC/DC being the sole provider of the soundtrack was a wise choice, too, as their music is able to work perfectly for good guys and bad guys alike, and their sound matches the grittiness of the film. (King uses weather to dirty up the characters and fray their emotions.) I especially like the use of “Ride On” in the Dixie Boy on the first night, when everyone is burned out after the long day. And if you like AC/DC (and I do – I saw them on The Razors Edge tour and they put on a great show), every time one of their songs kicks to life, the film gets a nice shot of energy, as when Deke is riding his bike down a street in a residential neighborhood and the lawn sprinklers pop to life as he passes. I think it works, too, that AC/DC was in a bit of a downtime during this period, so King’s use of their music (he used both previously released songs and new material) doesn’t feel designed to sell the soundtrack or strike a chord with the 14-24 year old demographic.
I don’t love MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE ironically because it’s so bad it’s good. I love it honestly because every time I watch it, I revel in every second of it. Certainly, as a kid the hook for me was the eternally awesome Green Goblin rig, but there’s more here than a visual shout-out to Marvel Comics. (Even now, and even with 95% of his body being a truck, this is still the best-looking Green Goblin costume on film and his most menacing appearance.) Like The Cannonball Run and Clue, Maximum Overdrive did a lot to shape my sense of writing in ways I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. I just watched these movies over and over because I loved them, and it’s only in recent years I’ve come to realize the debt I owe them.
Stephen King might not be overly fond of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, but I’ve watched it three times in the last 24 hours, and I’m sure to watch it again before it disappears from Netflix instant streaming.