Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Maximum Overdrive is best enjoyed on television with the benefit of commercial breaks, editing for time and content and hosted by Joe Bob Briggs; the shorter and easier to swallow, the better with this one. Now that is not to say Maximum Overdrive is a bad movie. It is in fact a HORRIBLE movie! But… it’s horrible in a Roger Corman drive-in way that we all know if viewed under the right conditions (accompanied by a few tall boys for instance), can be a hoot. That’s why it’s so much better sandwiched between the musings of the great drive-in philosopher Joe Bob. I’ve heard it rumored that Stephen King himself referred to this as a moron movie, which says to me that it is best viewed with your brain in neutral. Any thought, even the slightest question about the plot (which has holes big enough to drive the Green-Goblin faced Happy Toyz truck through) would cause your brain to jackknife in frustration. This movie is trash, pure, golden trash. Don’t scratch the surface, though, the gold is only leaf and flakes right off.
The story centers on the inhabitants of the Dixie Boy truck stop along the North Carolina coast in the end of summer in 1986. The cosmic loops and swirls of the universe happen to have the orbital trajectory of the Earth crossed through the tail of a strange comet. The earth becomes blanketed in what looks like a green aurora borealis. It’s obvious trouble’s a brewin’. The heroes of our story go about their business like any normal day. Little do they know, but within hours, machines will begin moving on their own, thinking malicious anti-human thoughts and start slaughtering their fleshy forebears en masse. Lawnmowers, bicycles, electric knives, soda machines, a foul mouthed ATM and most importantly for they are the stars of our melodrama of machinations, eighteen wheelers all wreak horrible vengeance on the small burg.
It seems as though the only haven for humans is the Dixie Boy. Why? The machines need the fuel and from what one can gather, the Dixie Boy is the only gas station in town and seemingly it’s the only one for miles and miles as an endless number of trucks line up for the smorgasbord of diesel din-din.
Blood, explosions, guns, more blood and more explosions follow as the inhabitants of the Dixie Boy hatch their grand scheme to escape to low-tech freedom by outwitting the machines, and let me tell you folks for this bunch, in this movie, that’s a big order.
I often wonder what is more embarrassing for Martin Sheen: his son Charlie’s wild days and bad publicity, his son Emilio’s career, or his aforementioned son Charlie’s career. On the strength of Maximum Overdrive alone, I would wager a guess that it’s Emilio’s career. Neither he nor his stock love interest Laura Harrington (The Devil’s Advocate, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) have much to do. The meet, exchange some trite dialogue, screw (pardon my baseness, but that’s what they do) and blow a few things up. The talents of both Pat Hingle (Hang ‘Em High, Norma Rae, Batman) and Frankie Faison (Cat People, CHUD, Do the Right Thing) are just wasted. The only actor who really makes anything of her role is Lisa Simpson herself, Yeardly Smith. Her high-pitched nasal voice and her slow whining delivery make her lines and role the funniest and most memorable in the film. “Curtis are you dead? You better be!”
Stephen King based the screenplay for Maximum Overdrive on his short story "Trucks." His first and last time as director, King unfortunately misses even the mark he set for himself. It’s easy to see that this film is intended to be homage to excess; the kind of movie full of big trucks, loud rock music and cheap thrills you would find at a drive-in. I have a soft spot in my heart for this movie, but I can’t deny that overall the pace is a slow, the acting incredibly stilted, the action cartoonish, and the dialogue, oy the dialogue! For a writer of Stephen King’s caliber you’d expect there to be some better than average lines. Not so! The writing is obviously intended to approximate the cheese of 70’s exploitation fare, but it falls short. The script doesn’t serve as homage, it just isn’t clever enough. Then again, Stephen King did call this “a moron movie.” It could be that Maximum Overdrive is exactly the way King wanted it. If you set the bar low, you’re not as disappointed with, well, disappointment.
The trucks are the real stars of the show, especially the Happy Toyz truck. That ghoulish face is gleeful in its menace (which for those of you who’ve seen the Spiderman movie THAT is what Stan Lee intended the Green Goblin to look like). With his metal minions behind him the truck is big, bad, and P.O.’d at mankind. What a technological Freudian nightmare! The metal children have risen up to kill their human parents and become full fledged adults, running the show and the planet. That’s as good a reason as any for the malignity of the trucks, which by the end of the movie seem to be the only machines still alive. The weapons used by the Dixie Boy crew, for instance, never seem to misbehave. Maybe it’s their strict military code of honor.
Second billing right behind the trucks should really go to the music of AC/DC. Anyone who reads King’s books knows he is a big fan of classic rock. The hard, drum and guitar heavy classic licks of the band’s greatest hits fuel the action of the movie. Angus Young and the boys’ tunes almost sound like those big engines revving up and peeling out.
If you are in the video store and see that Maximum Overdrive is in stock and available to rent, wait and check your TV Guide. Hopefully you’ll find it scheduled for a Saturday night on basic cable, at which point you should chill a sixer of tall boys, kick back and pray that Joe Bob has finally found TV work again.
To date, Stephen King's only
The "Dixie Boy" set was so authentic that actual truckers tried to stop in.