Written and Directed by: Stephen King
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, and Laura Harrington
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"What do you think happened here?"
"Fucked if I know, Bubba. Fucked if I know."
"Fucked if I know, Bubba. Fucked if I know."
After watching filmmakers mess around in his sandbox for a decade, Stephen King finally took it upon himself to step behind a camera for Maximum Overdrive and bring his vision to the screen without compromise. “If you want something done right, you ought to do it yourself,” he insisted in the film’s killer trailer, a great bit of marketing that plays up his presence. He’s omnipresent here: making a hard sell in the trailer, peeking in on the poster, both of which seems to signal that this will be the ultimate Stephen King movie. What further horrors could spring from the deranged mind that hatched the likes of Carrie, The Shining, and The Dead Zone? Surely, something truly unnerving or horrific waited.
Well, about that. For whatever reason—some of them surely substance-related, others due to his inexperience—King churned out one of the wildest, most ridiculous films to ever bear his name. In fact, Maximum Overdrive might be the silliest King-related film, and it’s surely a far cry from the serious-minded, deeply unsettling work that made the author famous. It does, however, remind us that this is where his heart often rests: in the somewhat juvenile EC Comics tales from his youth that boasted cheap, lurid thrills. This feels like King stepping back into the same cartoonish headspace he inhabited as Creepshow’s Jordy Verrill, as Maximum Overdrive is an over-the-top farce that at least lives up to its trailer’s maniacal sense of showmanship.
King is front and center in the film too, which opens on a bank, where the electronic communications have gone haywire. A gawking local (King) looks on disbelief at the vulgar messages being spit out. “This machine just called me an asshole!” he shouts aloud with an awful (read: great) southern twang before the opening chords of AC/DC’s “Who Made Who” blare away, announcing the opening credits. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting opening for such a raucously entertaining romp through King’s unhinged id. When given a chance to man his own film, he goes for it with the sort of big, audacious swing that you appreciate—even if it often feels like he’s flailing away.
The premise—ostensibly inspired by King’s short story “Trucks” but also something of a Twilight Zone riff—involves a passing comet that causes the planet’s electronics to gain sentience and turn against their creators. And while King’s enthusiasm wasn’t limited, his resources surely were, as Dino de Laurentiis’s budget only allowed for this apocalyptic carnage to unfold within the confines of cozy Wilmington, North Carolina. Specifically, it eventually settles on The Dixie Boy, a greasy roadside truck stop that doubles as a sanctuary for a group of survivors led by Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez), an ex-con with a heart of gold and, as it turns out, access to a small armory thanks to his shady asshole boss (Pat Hingle).
To his credit, however, King does his best to envision the sheer, spectacle-laden carnage this concept should entail. The first 30 minutes is almost exclusively dedicated to the machines wrecking everyone’s shit. A huge drawbridge goes up right in the middle of rush hour, causing an enormous amount of destruction, with cars and bodies sliding off into the water below. Final Destination, eat your heart out. In the more rural locals, machinery of all sorts have come to life, including a steamroller that runs right over a poor kid. Cars of all shapes and sizes squeal down the interstate, often causing fiery, jaw-dropping crashes. It’s King at his most gleefully demented, as humanity is reduced to mere roadblocks to be splattered by the wayside.
It’d all be incredibly mean if Maximum Overdrive weren’t so goddamn ridiculous to begin with; instead of recoiling at the horror, you can’t help but howl at the absurdity of it all. When given the chance to do anything as a director, King apparently settled on this, the sort of film where Emilio Estevez needle each other with the insult “Bubba” when they aren’t firing off mortar rounds at sentient semi-trucks. Most of the bunch that holes up at the Dixie Boy are a bunch of broadly sketched yokels; more caricatures than actual characters, they’re a colorful collection of personalities nonetheless. I’m not about to sit here and argue that they’re the sort of nuanced depiction of humanity under duress that other films with this general premise often yield, but they’re a lovable bunch of hicks and well-meaning bumpkins (well, save for Hingle, the outrageous asshole you can’t wait to see get mowed down).
King himself would be the first to identify this as a “moron movie,” which is fair. Maximum Overdrive feels as if it’s been specifically engineered to be enjoyed with popcorn, candy, and the beverage of your choice. This is not a criticism but merely an acknowledgment that it is exactly what you might expect from a first-time director who decided he wanted his entire movie to be scored by AC/DC. Whether by accident or design, it feels like one of the wilder Creepshow segments stretched out to feature length, with all the campiness and black humor that entails. Its imagery isn’t unsettling so much as it’s just cool as hell, especially the multiple shots of the trucks ominously, endlessly circling the Dixie Boy. Their “leader” is a truck full of toys that’s been tricked out to resemble the Green Goblin, which perfectly captures the comic book tone of Maximum Overdrive. You’ll have to go elsewhere if you’re seeking the King’s macabre sensibilities; this is the one you watch when you crave Emilio Estevez blowing up trucks with a machine gun as AC/DC riffs scorch through your speakers.
Graciously enough, King also claims this is the worst adaptation of his work, but, with all due respect to the master himself, fuck that. Not only are there far more deserving titles to take that “honor,” but Maximum Overdrive is a legitimate, unhinged hoot. I have a deep, abiding respect for the maniacal, “what the hell is even going here?” vibe that can only arise out of allowing a completely inexperienced director behind the camera. Many of the stories surrounding its production have become infamous*, most notably King’s own admission that his cocaine addiction only compounded the difficulties. All that recklessness is right up there on the screen, reflected in every wild-eyed line reading, every gruesome burst of violence, and every insane stunt (the latter of which were sometimes too reckless, given the on-set injuries and near-deaths that occurred). King might not “scare the hell out of you” like he promises in the trailer, but he does entertain the hell out of you.
Even its own director would likely insist that Maximum Overdrive is a movie that shouldn’t exist, and these sorts of curious cases are almost always interesting regardless of how they turn out. At some point, someone decided to let a “coked out of his mind” Stephen King helm a Night of the Living Dead riff involving killer trucks. Bless them, for we do not deserve such wonders.
*A dramatized account of the production entitled Maximum King recently earned a spot on the Black List, and I would most certainly pay all of the money in the event that script is eventually made into a movie.
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