Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why I Love: Maximum Overdrive

Amongst the many, many many, many reasons I love my parents is this: 
Maximum Overdrive came out in 1986, when the Mets were Mookie Wilsoning their way to the World Series Championship and I was a happy 4 year old...who saw Maximum Overdrive in the theater.
Stephen King was famously on more coke than a Christmas loving polar bear when he wrote, directed, and provided his best cameo yet in what can pretty safely be described as a truckwreck of a film. With a ridiculous premise made even more ridiculous by the deux ex machina explanation of planetary orbit, Maximum Overdrive boasts some of the gooeyist melted American cheese to emerge from the ‘80s. It’s a gooey cheeseburger of a movie served with the greasiest fries you’ve ever eaten, and by golly sugar buns, I love every minute of it.

Quick Plot: You know the story. On a bright summer day in North Carolina, all the world’s machinary  pulls a small-scale SKYNET and becomes hostile. Hairdryers strangle. Electric knives stab. Arcade games electrocute and even the sweet little ice cream truck drives with menace. A varied band of plucky survivors (led by the rebellious Emilio Estevez in his Brat Pack prime) hides out in the Dixie Boy Truck Stop as they formulate a plan to make it alive in a world free of batteries and gasoline.

Obviously, it’s a silly plot, and one that was probably irresistible to the man responsible for killer washing machines, sociopathic classic cars, and evil religion-spreading corn. Stephen King is a vital piece in the history of modern horror, but when undisciplined, his work can be embarrassing. Maximum Overdrive was his first (and sadly, thus far only) directoral effort, and just about any word out of his mouth in the last 20+ years has been sprinkled with his own admission that it’s terrible. 

It’s a charming humility, but let’s face it: Maximum Overdrive is also an absolute blast. A few reasons why:
9:48...79 degrees...Fuck...You
Can you think of a better way to open a film than with a neon sign cursing you out? I suppose following said intro with Stephen King being dubbed an asshole by an ATM machine comes pretty close.

Every villain needs his theme song, and Maximum Overdrive cranks it up right with a ridiculously over the top and aggressive sound cue that can only be described as Jaws eating popcorn on speed and helium. The fact that King randomly assigns this music to particular attacks (the aforementioned electric knife, the no-name dude’s payback for stealing a ring from the dead) somehow makes it all the more entertaining as it only occasionally reminds us just how goofy a thing we’re watching.

Who Made Who? WE MADE YOU!
Speaking of soundtrack, let’s give a fingerless gloved round of applause to AC/DC, the one and only band responsible for Maximum Overdrive’s peppy pseudo badass beats. Their songs firmly ground the film in the fertile ground of the ‘80s, especially when its official anthem--Who Made Who?--is spoken, a la Britney Spears in Crossroads, by one of the film’s most beloved characters, Wanda the truck stop waitress who’s so dedicated to her profession that she keeps her blue eyeshadow fresh and pink hairbow high a full day after the world’s machines have tried to kill her (they eventually do).

Death. By. Soda. Can. DEATHBYSODACAN!
Easily one of my favorites in the extremely long list of best death scenes ever, the soda can machine killing is a glory to behold. Watch ! as the happy go lucky baseball coach saunters over to treat his winning team to a few Pepsis, only to be goofily puckered in the groin by a powerful surge of cans. Hear ! his teenagers giggle, because who doesn’t giggle when the only adult in eyeshot just got his groin hit by a soda can? See ! the machine wage a full-blown war on every player in sight, shooting its ammo as they flee like soldiers on the Western Front, most pegged down with one hit to their backside. At that point, the sight of a steamroller rolling its way over a 14 year old boy is just whipped cream on an already very delicious root beer float.

Sloooooooooooowww Moooooooooooooooooshoooooooooonnnnnn
Often a sign of a director-in-training, an overabundance of slow motion generally comes off as ineffective but hilarious. Maximum Overdrive is no different. The opening drawbridge-gone-psycho scene uses it wonderfully, as an ill-fated biker slides off into the water, complete with his own Tarzan-like cry of peril. You’d think that would be enough, but King seems to find the tool quite versatile, later employing it to build totally unneeded excitement at the conclusion of the even more ill-fated baseball team’s winning slide into home.
Death By Watermelon
It happens, and it happens within the film’s first five minutes. Sheesh Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, it took one scene for you to officially be dethroned.

Happy Toyz, Where Art Thou?
Certainly not in business, because what kid in his right mind would be charmed by any company whose mascot was a grinning gargoyle-like clown? The star truck of Maximum Overdrive is indeed a gleeful villain, so long as we look past the whole idea of, you know, a terrifyingly kid-unfriendly kid company even existing. Then again. Ronald McDonald has been pied pipering his way through the entire planet’s children for almost 50 years, so maybe I underestimate youth.

Random Product Placement
A sparking Miller Lite sign. Evil BIC pens truck. Adorable AC/DC themed Volkswagon bus. Heck, I almost want this film remade just to see how Apple Computers worms its worm-in-an-apple way into getting a positive spin in a film about evil technology.

When In Doubt, Shoot A Bunch of Dudes
Maximum Overdrive CERTAINLY has its flaws, among them, the fact that it’s pretty gosh darn hard to keep track of its characters. Sure, our eyes are always on the heroic(ally hunky) Billy, his quick-to-bed hitchhiker lady pal Brett, the villainous Pat Hingle, Lisa Simpson & her new husband, the kid, and black guy, but there are anywhere between two and seven other background survivors who seem to be hanging out in the truck stop that never come close to registering as being important. They’re all male, country-looking, and bland, so it’s only fitting that at about 2/3rds through the film, the cute little machine-gun driven vehicle kills them all with one swoop of its bullet fire. 

(don't even bother learning the names of the white dudes in the rear)
Someone Got a Different Memo
Holter Graham’s Deke has a little more to care about than the rest of the Dixie Boy’s patrons. Within 24 hours, the kid has seen his baseball coach brutally die and learned that his father’s guts are still fresh on the pavement. I suppose that explains how much more seriously he seems to take his role in Maximum Overdrive, with an intense grimace on his young face all the way to his slaughter of a frisky Drive-Thru burger sign. When he passes his rifle to Brett, Graham’s delivery of “I don’t want this anymore” has more weight than an elephant telling a whale that it had an abortion. Or something.
It's just realllllllllllllly serious. And therefore hilarious.

Eat My Shorts
....gets said in this movie, cementing its status as Great Cinema of our time.
Why Mourn When You Can Eat Bacon?
We’re not really expected to take any of the deaths too seriously in Maximum Overdrive, so perhaps it’s only fitting that the characters don’t either. After Deke’s caring father gets run over, Billy and Brett are quick to flirt their way under the covers, while Wanda’s widowed husband doesn’t seem to have too much trouble moving on and joking his way through pumping gas. When your film is just over 100 minutes, you really shouldn’t waste any time with the mushy stuff, right?

The Comet. Oh Yeah, the Comet
When most of us think back to Maximum Overdrive, the things that gleefully ride into our minds are listed above. But remember, dear readers, just WHY the toy cars and lawnmowers and gas pumps and pinball machines are trying to bring about the end of the human race: 
“On June 19th, 1987, at 9:47 A.M. EST, the Earth passed into the extraordinarily diffuse tail of Rhea-M, a rogue comet. According to astronomical calculations, the planet would remain in the tail of the comet for the next eight days, five hours, twenty-nine minutes, and twenty-three seconds.”

So, as the selectively loose Brett mentions later in the film, an evil comet is telling technology to turn on its makers. Makes perfect sense, no? 
Let’s examine the closing coda text, of which I’ll declare, is easily the greatest closing coda since the adorably unspellchecked two-typo boasting conclusion of Burial Ground: Nights of Terror.
“Two days after, a large UFO was destroyed in space by a Russian 'weather satellite,' which happened to be equipped with a laser cannon and class IV nuclear missiles. 
Approximately six days later, the earth passed beyond the tail of Rhea-M, exactly as predicted.”
Okay. So, the comet was just a red herring in a film that CLEARLY was dying for some external plot twists that have no effect whatsoever on the action we’re watching. And in the end, the Russians save the day with laser canons. And Stephen King is EMBARRASSED by this?
The Winning Line
“Curtis!........... Are you dead?”
I cannot tell you how many times these words were quoted in the Intravia household when I was growing up. The fact that Yeardley Smith would later go on to cement her voice in cultural history as the one and only Lisa Simpson makes this all the more grand.

Lessons Learned
Even Stephen King can’t resist a fat man farting joke

Mack Trucks are especially annoyed by screechy waitresses accusing them of insolence
Morse Code: Learn It. Love it. Live It.
I will not say that Maximum Overdrive is a good film, but trust me sugar buns, it’s a joy. The film is sadly unavailable from Netflix and currently has nothing more than a bare bones DVD release, but if you can find it at a decent price, it still makes for a glorious daily backdrop to your life. I’m praying to the fairy godparents of Blu Ray that one day, we can all live in a world where Stephen King sits down with a six pack of O’Douls and gives us a long-awaited commentary track, where Emilio Estevez returns for a making-of documentary, and those mythical 12 seconds of gruesome cutting room floor footage resurface, all packaged in a tacky tin case with a glow-in-the-dark Happy Toyz Goblin poking out of your movie library. 

Until then, take us home AC/DC:


  1. Best write up on this I've read. I know the movie is horrible, but I love it, and will always be a favorite from my childhood!


  2. Much thanks ma'am! I wonder how it plays for youngins who didn't grow up in the '80s. It's SO steeped in nostalgia that virtually anyone I know in my age range adores it, but you know...I just wonder and hope.

  3. Was it a Stephen Ting adaptation that had a scene where a man is stabbed to death with a corn cob? I can't remember that movie's name.

    Maximum Overdrive looks absolutely wonderful, it's just a shame that not only is it only on bare-bone releases, but that that terrifying nightmare beast Ronald McDonald is not seen and killed in the film!Now that would have been satisfying!

  4. Hm, the corn cob is definitely familiar, but I can't quite place it. I'll be thinking about it.

    And I don't have enough expletives to hurl Ronald McDonald's way. I hate that creature so very, very very much.

  5. Great post! As a kid from the 80's, I loved this movie to death, and I think I love it even more now. So silly, yet so satisfying!

    Oh yeah, and the Stephen King corn cob death movie would be Sleepwalkers.


  6. Speaking as one who was alive back then, Maximum overdrive was recieved with about as much enthusiasm as a movie like saw 5 would be today.
    I do remember seeing the trailer in theaters, and stephen king was telling me, "I'm going to scare the hell out of you".

    Turned out, this is more of an action film.
    But there is something that feels just right about the cinematography. It looks great.
    The cinematographer Armando Nanuzzi lost an eye during production when the radio controlled lawnmower went out of control and shot some wood splinters into his face.

  7. Ah! Thanks Chris! I haven't watched Sleepwalkers since it came out in the theaters, but now I'm almost curious to revisit it for the corn cob scene alone. I can't remember a thing about it otherwise!

  8. Damn! I knew there was a stunt accident with the ice cream truck scene, but I didn't know an eye was lost while filming! I guess that can happen when the man in charge is sky high on cocaine.

    And I can understand Maximum Overdrive getting pooped upon when it came out. I loved it then and love it even more now, but you ain't actually good. Also, I suppose I would categorize it as action horror.

  9. You make a helluva case Emily. I was in high-school in 1986 and went out to see this. I absolutely loathed and despised everything about this movie except the kickass AC/DC soundtrack. I hated it so much that I still, to this 25-years-later day, vigorously denounce the movie every chance I get, even though I only saw it that one time. But Zod help me, your post is so joyful and enthusiastic that I feel compelled to watch it again, to see what I think now.

  10. Funny John, as tangerinedream points out, this film was (fairly justifiably) HATED upon it release, namely because...well, if ain't that good. I can't really defend it as a quality movie, but danger, it's just weirdly joyous in a very 80s way. Let go of your pride and give it a ride!

  11. *slow clap*

    You are correct, ma'am. Great read. :)

  12. No problem, Emily. Always willing to help out fellow horror fans with vegetable related deaths. Here's a link to the scene in question from Youtube...

    Sadly, it's pretty much the best thing from that total load of a film.


  13. Oh goodness, the cob isn't even sharp!

    I forgot that Sleepwalkers was directed by Mick Garris. I have a post about The Shining miniseries coming up, so I"ll save most of my words for then, but let's just say that he's not the, dynamic director.

  14. I have not seen this and feel a little sad about that.
    I recognized some aspects of it though, as it sounds like it's adapted from a short story called Trucks he wrote which came out in a collection in 1978.

  15. Aimee, do not feel sad for you have something even more special: you may discover the beauty of Maximum Overdrive like a fresh virgin on her wedding night. For that, we are all envious.

    I always forget that this was based on a short story. I think I assume it was written as he went along with filming and snorting coke.