Let me preface this review by saying that I am a big fan of Stephen King as an author. The man can spin a yarn like few others (even if his dialogue can often leave something to be desired.) I think many of his novels are stunning triumphs of the genre. I consider It in particular to be a work of absolute genius, and will fight anyone who says otherwise. But there is a very good reason why Stephen King has only one directing credit to his name, and that reason was released in 1986. (Yes, he has third unit credits for the TV miniseries of The Shining, but let’s not quibble.) A first-time viewer who walked in on my screening of this film described it as “fascinatingly awful,” and I feel that that would be an accurate distillation of my own feelings towards it. But two-word reviews are not my style.

Maximum Overdrive was primarily influenced by Hitchcock’s The Birds, and the premise itself isn’t terrible – machines of the world rise up and attack their human creators. Terrible hijinks ensue. It’s a viable story idea, and one that was wielded to much greater effect in James Cameron’s The Terminator, released 2 years earlier. Where Maximum Overdrive falls flat isn’t in the germ of the story, it is completely and utterly in the execution. King himself referred to it as a “moron movie” and considered it to be a learning experience that he didn’t wish to repeat. It takes a certain wisdom to know your own weaknesses, so good on him. Speaking of weaknesses, let’s get on with it.

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A public service film about the universal horrors of pink eye.

The first and most monumental failing is the screenplay, which was actually penned by Stephen King himself and is based on his short story ‘Trucks’. You can find the story in his Night Shift collection, if you’re interested. In a nutshell, machines become homicidal as Earth passes through the tail of a mysterious comet which fills the atmosphere with a hazy, neon green glow. A title card at the end of the film also implicates a UFO in the rampage, because I suppose it made more sense than the comet alone. The film centres on a group of survivors in North Carolina’s Dixie Boy truck stop. The group, led by ex-convict Bill (Emilio Estevez), try to come up with a strategy to escape a gang of big-rigs that are holding them under siege. The mechanics of the disaster are never explained – how exactly are the machines being controlled? Are they sentient? Did the comet really have anything to do with it, or was it the UFO the whole time? The effects on the machines are inconsistent – the vehicles used by the human characters seem to be somehow immune even while all other machines seem hell-bent on destroying them. The machines at times appear to understand English, at other times not. They speak in Morse code to the humans in one scene, and in others they seem to be linked telepathically to each other. In several scenes, machines attack other machines for seemingly no reason. At one point the machines build themselves a homemade turret with a gun able to fire itself, yet the many firearms wielded by the band of human survivors somehow remain inert. These logical inconsistencies could be more ably borne if not for the dynamics and interactions between the characters.

Dialogue has never been King’s major strength – his brilliance lies in story rather than in style – but the dialogue in Maximum Overdrive is beyond terrible. It’s crass, convoluted, and often nonsensical. Crassness is recurring theme throughout the film. Before the opening credits even get warmed up, we’re treated to an extended shot of a lift-bridge controller pausing during a poker game with his co-worker to dig his finger into his nose. This shot basically sets the tone for the entire film. At multiple points, people make references to defecation or urination, using phrases like “take a dump” and “I think I just loaded my pants.” Seconds into her first appearance, Connie (Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson) argues with her new husband Curtis (John Short) about whether or not he can observe her in the ladies room. Crass humour in horror isn’t inherently a problem for me. I loved Jennifer’s Body. But as King writes it, it seems less subversive than plainly stupid.

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Never bring a gun to an RPG fight.

The characters in King’s novels work because, even though they are caricatures, they imbued with a certain level of authenticity – we can believe that people like these exist, or at least believe that King believes that they do. They are written in good faith, and as such are characters with whom we can take the journey, whether that journey be battling killer clowns, taking a camping trip to see a dead body, or trying to shake a gypsy curse. The characters in Maximum Overdrive, particularly the two leads, seem more suited to the world of parody. The only black character utters “Yo’ mama” at an arcade machine, while Brett, tough girl hitchhiker and female lead (played by Laura Harrington), utters lines like “I’ll tell you one thing … you sure make love like a hero.” Pat Hingle’s portrayal of Bill’s boss, Bubba, is hammier than a croque-monsieur – the perfect foil to Estevez’s attempt to smother us with his gravitas. The epic “We made them” meltdown scene featuring waitress Wanda (Ellen McElduff) has to be seen to be believed. Watch the clip here.

Not only are the characters unbelievable and therefore unsympathetic, but the directing is sloppy (and that is putting it lightly.) The opening set piece on the bridge is a hot mess, with multiple slow motion shots of trucks falling into a lake interspersed with a slapstick sequence of a truckload of watermelons spilling onto cars. At one point, an AC/DC van gets t-boned, and all of this action is accompanied by the dulcet tones of AC/DC themselves, who scored the film. A gas station attendant at the Dixie Boy truck stop is puzzled by the apparent breakdown of his pump, blows into it, and then holds the nozzle directly to his face. You can imagine what happens next. An electric knife jumps at and tears into Wanda’s arm, then falls to the floor and somehow wriggles over to her in order to attack her shoe. Rather than expressing believable shock or concern about the fact that she is bleeding profusely from her wrist, two of the truck stop’s regulars laugh lightheartedly at the situation: “Did that knife go rabid on you, sweet thing?” one of them asks. A few minutes later she is back to waitressing, wearing a clean white bandage and apparently none the worse for wear. During a chase scene, a truck is shown mysteriously on fire long before it crashes down an embankment. A dead body found by Curtis and Connie clearly breathes – was there no time for a second take of this 3 second shot?

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Too few horror films feature fruit-based attacks.

There is one sequence that is fairly effective. In a quiet neighbourhood, the young Deke (badly played by Holter Graham) hides in some bushes when he hears the innocuous music of an approaching ice cream truck. The ice cream truck navigates the street slowly and methodically, obeying all of the traffic signs, and then eventually leaves the area. The restrained chill of this scene lies in stark contrast to a later and far more excessive scene with Deke – the ever-present AC/DC in the soundtrack is replaced by ‘The Flight of the Valkyries’ for a brief sequence shot from the cockpit of a small airplane, evidently flying itself around the area in search of humans to swoop down upon. The scene adds nothing to the plot, and the airplane is never seen again.

The script doesn’t take much time to mine the fertile philosophical ground of its premise, beyond Wanda’s outrage at the machines turning on their creators. At one point, Brett suggests to Bill that “Maybe tomorrow, it will be our world again.” “I don’t know … was it ever?” he responds. While it would have been nice for the film to have slightly more heft in this department, a horror comedy can’t really be faulted for a lack of intellectual exploration of its subject matter.

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If we’re fast enough, maybe we can outrun this stain on our careers!

This review may give you the impression that I dislike or even despise Maximum Overdrive. I don’t. Let me say this: despite these myriad failings, Maximum Overdrive is actually a hugely entertaining movie. All of the script, acting, and directorial choices were completely wrong, but the film fails in all of the right ways to cement its place (deservedly) as a cult classic.

Score: 3.5 out of 10 rampaging Polybius arcade machines.

Bonus points:

  • A man is hit in the groin by a flying can when a soda machine goes rogue … twice.
  • A recording of Yeardley Smith yelling “Curtis” repeatedly would be the worst ringtone ever.
  • Why does Bill’s boss own an RPG? And why does he keep it at work?