Maximum Overdrive (1986) -***
You might say that Maximum Overdrive is the quintessential bad Stephen King movie. This is not because it’s the worst of the lot— or indeed even anywhere near the bottom of the pile. No movie so endearingly lunkheaded could justly be placed among the company of turdburgers like Creepshow 2 and Trucks. Rather, Maximum Overdrive has attained its iconic position because, for once, King’s fans have no one to blame but the author himself for the way the film turned out. The average quality of the movies made from King’s writings dropped precipitously during the first half of the 1980’s, and the broad consensus among those who enjoyed his books was that the people making the films just didn’t understand the source material, or know what they ought to be trying to do with it. And up until 1986, that seemed like a fairly plausible thesis. After all, King himself wrote the screenplay to Creepshow, the best of the post-1980 movies, and his working relationship with Creepshow director George Romero was evidently a close and satisfying one— satisfying enough, at any rate, that Romero would sign on for two more King-related projects thereafter. Then came Maximum Overdrive, which King not only wrote, but directed as well, proving in the process that he could fuck up one of his stories every bit as comprehensively as Lewis Teague or Fritz Kiersch. Admittedly, some might want to reserve at least a portion of the blame for Dino De Laurentiis, who produced Maximum Overdrive in collaboration with (and I can’t tell you how shocked I was to see this name on the credits) former Amicus Productions founding father Milton Subotsky. Unquestionably, De Laurentiis has a knack for bringing out the worst in a director, even one who is normally very accomplished (witness David Lynch’s rather soggy version of Dune, also made on Dino’s dime), but in the final assessment, I think his contribution here could be best characterized as arriving on the set with a limitless supply of rope. First-time director King then cheerfully fashioned Dino’s largesse into enough nooses for everybody involved in the production. But perhaps it is only fitting that a movie about motor vehicles coming to life to slaughter their owners should have all the morbidly voyeuristic appeal of a 50-car pileup caused by a jackknifed truck full of glow-in-the-dark sex toys.
King’s first move is to seek an explanation for the inexplicable, something he wisely avoided doing in “Trucks,” the short story from which Maximum Overdrive was derived. An opening crawl alerts us that the Earth has passed through the diffuse tail of the comet Rhea-M, and that our planet will remain within it for some eight days. Then we head over to Wilmington, North Carolina, to witness the first signs of the worldwide mechanical rebellion that will occupy our attention for the next hour and a half. The time-and-temperature display on the front of a bank suddenly begins flashing “FUCK… YOU…” instead. A man (our esteemed director, faking a southern accent that might actually be the worst single thing about this movie) inserts his card into the ATM outside only to be told by the machine, “YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE.” The machinery controlling a drawbridge cranks into operation of its own accord, pitching the morning commuters into the river or piling them on top of each other. A soda machine goes berserk, launching its cans at lethal velocity into the midst of a victorious little league baseball team. And at the Dixie Boy truck stop outside of town, a pump sprays diesel fuel into the eyes of its operator (J. C. Quinn, from C.H.U.D. and The Prophecy), and an electric carving knife starts itself up and tears into the forearm of waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) while she fills in for regular line cook Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez, from Nightmares and Repo Man). Robinson— a somewhat foolish young man on parole from a prison sentence for armed robbery— was just then discovering exactly how Dixie Boy owner Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle, of Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo and Nightmare Honeymoon) was planning on screwing him out of an hour’s pay each day, and we may assume that it’s the boss’ fat face Bill sees in his mind’s eye as he rescues Wanda June by smashing the offending appliance with a claw hammer.
Meanwhile, a hitchhiker named Brett (The Devil’s Advocate’s Laura Harrington) is beginning to regret accepting a ride from an aggressively boring and hypocritically lecherous traveling Bible salesman (probably Christopher Murney— since we never hear the man’s name, I had to guess on the basis of position within the closing credits). While the salesman paws her thigh, Brett hears the radio news announcer break in with a warning to everyone to stay off of the highways. A moment later, after it has become perfectly clear that the salesman has no intention of heeding that important-sounding advice, she seizes the wheel out of her tormenter’s grasp, and wrenches the car into the Dixie Boy’s parking lot. Brett jumps out of the car the second it comes to a stop, provoking the salesman to follow her out, haranguing her all the while. The two of them argue so heatedly that they don’t notice the big rig belonging to Happy Toyz long-haul trucker Handy (Frankie Faison, of Cat People and Manhunter) starting itself up and barreling toward them. Robinson does see the oncoming truck, though, and he drags both Brett and the salesman to safety without a moment to lose. He doesn’t know what to make of it a short while later when a quick search of the cab turns up neither a driver nor any evidence of hotwiring (Handy has the keys on him inside), but we sure do.
Rampaging trucks also make life difficult for newlyweds Curtis (John Short) and Connie (Yeardley Smith, best known as the voice of Lisa Simpson) on what was supposed to be the drive to their honeymoon. Instead, they too wind up at the Dixie Boy, arriving just as every truck on the lot comes to life and begins circling the joint like a squadron of Apache cavalry in a low-budget Western. Connie and Curtis only narrowly survive their attempt to break through the revolving convoy. The two attempts to break out made at about the same time don’t go even that well. The trucks flatten Duncan (the fuel-blinded pump-monkey) when he tries to escape in the interest of finding and protecting his son, while the salesman winds up lying in the roadside drainage ditch, dying slowly of massive injuries. The irony is that Duncan would have seen his son if he had had just a little more patience. Deke (Holter Graham, from Two Evil Eyes and The Curse), the sole survivor of the little league team we saw earlier, has made his way across the Wilmington suburbs, and he reaches the Dixie Boy at just the right moment to take advantage of an attempt by Bill and Curtis to rescue the wounded salesman via the drainage main for the truck stop’s plumbing.
The people holed up at the Dixie Boy do have one thing going for them, though. Hendershot tries to keep it a secret at first (it is, after all, completely illegal), but the old sleazebag has been using the truck stop’s cellar as a storage facility for the huge arsenal of black-market firearms that one suspects accounts for most of his income. There are enough assault rifles and submachine guns for everybody to carry one, and he’s even got a light antitank rocket launcher down there! But before our heroes can take too much advantage of all that contraband firepower, they come under attack from a pair of machines that make the circling eighteen-wheelers look like a bunch of fluffy bunnies. The bulldozer could flat-out demolish the Dixie Boy if it felt like it, and its hide is tough enough that it can take a hit from Hendershot’s rocket launcher without suffering crippling damage. Worse still is the weird little vehicle from the nearest army base. It looks like little more than an all-terrain golf cart, but there’s an M-60 machine gun mounted on a post behind the steering wheel. The gunmobile chews up Wanda June, Hendershot, and a handful of Expendable Meat truckers, then once its point has been made, it starts beeping its horn in Morse code. Luckily, Deke is a boy scout, and he is able to ascertain that the machines want somebody to come out and man the pumps— there are thirsty trucks queued up for miles down the highway, and they want a little assistance from the folks with the opposable thumbs. The question is, which is the dumber idea— doing what the trucks want and forfeiting the advantage of superior self-sufficiency, or telling them to go fuck themselves and risking the wrath of the bulldozer and the gunmobile?
Yeah, this is the kind of movie in which the endgame confrontation hinges upon the ludicrous coincidence of a boy scout being in attendance at a truck stop when the rampaging machines decide they need to communicate— and that’s not even the silliest thing that happens in Maximum Overdrive. “Trucks” was a story that worked because it was off the wall. No reason was ever given for the mechanical mutiny, nor for the puzzling fact that only big commercial trucks participated in it. It was sixteen pages of pure irrationality, and its refusal to explain itself was its greatest strength. In Maximum Overdrive, however, we are immediately clued in that something in the tail of that comet is at fault, eliminating from the very first shot any possibility of the movie matching the short story’s power. Furthermore, while broadening the rebellion to all of our ubiquitous machines seems at first to make good logical sense, the notion of a trucks-only uprising is so deeply ingrained within the story that King has to cheat like crazy in order to make the screenplay work. You’ll notice, for example, that neither the newlyweds’ Oldsmobile nor the Bible salesman’s Cadillac ever gives anybody the slightest trouble, even though we see during Deke’s bike-ride through the suburbs that one woman was apparently killed by her hair dryer. Hell, even the lawn sprinklers go on the attack, spraying Deke with water whenever he drives within reach of them! Why, then, are the cars so well behaved? It’s simple, really. Cars didn’t come alive in the original story, and King needed cars to bring all of his characters to the site of the action. Thus we have something that manages to be a plot device and a plot hole simultaneously, and the movie is loaded with such initially stealthy but eventually glaring lapses of reason.
Those hostile lawn sprinklers also hint at something which is both Maximum Overdrive’s most serious handicap and its greatest strength— its sheer, random goofiness. Beyond the crummy acting or the irritating characters (Yeardley Smith shrieking incessantly with an exaggerated Dixie accent… *shudder*) or the misguided earnestness of the all-AC/DC soundtrack (the gods did not put Angus Young on this planet to play horror movie musical stings), it’s all the loopy shit that comes out of nowhere that turns Maximum Overdrive into a 30-pound wheel of fine, stinky cheese. There’s no way not to crack a smile when a homicidal coke machine is mowing down ten-year-old baseball players with projectile cans, or when a boy on a bicycle is chased by both a lawnmower and an ice cream van bearing the logo “MY-T TAS-T” in rapid succession. The opening scene with the foul-mouthed (foul-screened… whatever) ATM is so unabashedly puerile that you have no choice but to laugh at it, maturity or lack thereof be damned. Handy’s truck— which inexplicably has the likeness of Spiderman’s arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin, built around its front end in fiberglass— is like the reductio ad absurdum of the 1970’s stoner van, cool in a childish, unsophisticated way, yet awesomely stupid at the same time. I can’t imagine what the production designer could have been thinking, but I strangely have no trouble picturing him (or Stephen King) selling Dino De Laurentiis on the idea, or Dino enthusiastically writing a check to Marvel Comics for the character license. That’s the sort of thing I meant when I said that De Laurentiis probably had his greatest impact on the film as a provider of hanging rope. In total, his career as a movie producer seems to paint him as a peerless facilitator of other people’s bad ideas, and it strikes me as unlikely that Maximum Overdrive could have turned out as wonderfully wrong-headed under anyone else’s aegis. Well, okay— maybe Golan and Globus could have managed it, too…