Words on a rock ‘n’ roll trash horror classic
It’s taken Stephen King’s MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE thirty years to get any sort of authentic respect and I don’t even think it’s quite there yet. Thing is, I’ve loved it since the first time I saw it and, as it features a full soundtrack by iconic Aussie rockers AC/DC, heard it. Leonard Maltin gave it a BOMB rating and virtually every other critic of the period saddled it with the same sort of sneering disdain.
To be an 11 year old boy in 1986 and stand up and say “FUCK YOU! I LOVE MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE!” took courage. I ran the risk of spinning into the roll of cinematic social outcast, shunned by my peers and ridiculed by my pals.
But I’ve never really been one to give a gear what anyone else thinks about me so what the hell.
MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is a hubcap headed, gas spitting 1986 sci-fi action trash classic; the first and – if you believe his publicly uttered promise since then – only film to be directed by one of the most influential and Important fantasy/horror fiction writers in history. The film was indeed one of the worst reviewed studio pictures of its time and it has since been either ignored, reviled or smarmily dismissed. And while the diesel powered shocker is indeed nowhere near a decent creeper and is a pretty odd choice for one of the major forces of literary fear to choose as his maiden film voyage, I think it’s a fascinating example of the working class hero King aesthetic in full, perversely amplified effect and truly believe that there’s more going on in the picture than perhaps even its director understood.
And at the very least, the movie’s chief antagonist is a homicidal, toy tugging, 70’s semi-truck with the grinning image of the goddamned Green Goblin on it. The real deal Marvel comics sculpted, Spider-Man battling Green Goblin!
As a phantom comet circles the earth, every machine on the face of the planet begins to snap into consciousness and revolt violently against their human makers and masters. Steamrollers level little leaguers, pop machines fire off soda cans into skulls like bullets, electric steak knives hunger for blood, junkyard wrecks scream to life and monstrous rigs mow down men and women alike. As the world goes entertainingly mad, a ragtag band of shell shocked survivors congregate at the Dixie Boy truck stop where they unplug, hole up and try to evade the increasingly angry assemblage of evil automobiles.
MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is based on King’s truly eerie early period short story “Trucks” which most famously appeared in his bestselling 1978 collection “Night Shift”. I remember sifting through my dad’s paperback when I was 7, you know, the one with the eyeball riddled bandaged hand on the cover (an image culled from the story “I Am The Doorway”) and, while not as devastating as the “Graveyard Shift”, “Grey Matter” Or “One For The Road” tales, “Trucks” still got me good, especially the final, ominous airplane-gazing line. So it’s a real head scratcher why the universally adored author opted to turn that shivery tale into a testosterone fueled redneck action picture instead of a straight up genre piece. Many critics in 1986 were asking the same question and needless to say, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE was chewed up and spat out like so many Truckasaurus hor’s d’ouvres. Even Dino De Laurentiis’ widow (Dino produced and distributed the film, the same year he gave the world BLUE VELVET), producer Martha De Laurentiis, who also had a hand in making the movie, rolled her eyes when I met her at a party and poked her for details about it.
And while some of the maligning is merited, only a fool would dismiss the film as flat out bad. It has far too much personality for that. Because no matter what your take on this trashy classic, if you know King’s universe you’ll recognize that the people that populate MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE are vintage King creations. We have our reluctant hero, the recently paroled short order truck stop cook (here played by a scrappy Emilio Estevez) who’s just trying to live a square life. There’s his fat, greasy, abusive boss (Pat Hingle) who exploits him and threatens to send him packing back to prison if he gets out of line. The spunky female hitchhiker (Laura Harrington) who’s both sexy and razor sharp under pressure. And there’s that cloistered King small town aesthetic, like Norman Rockwell by way of Alfred Hitchcock, that permeates almost every inch of his body of scribblings.
And then there’s the trucks.
King would later expand the ideas explored in Trucks and shrink their scope in CHRISTINE, itself adapted for the screen by John Carpenter in 1983. When it came time to turn Trucks into MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, King exploited the visual sting of seeing mighty machines marauding and murdering with nary a driver in sight to well, maximum, effect. From the opening bridge massacre sequence, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is a full out orgy of smashed windshields, crunching metal, spinning wheels, blaring horns and splattery human remains. He really went for it and its grand fun to see chrome crushing people ad nauseum, all cut to the endless strains of the aforementioned AC/DC. The band were a favorite of King’s and he commissioned them to both write the blaring score for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and lend some of their back catalog classics to the fold as well and man alive, does their evil brand of trucker metal jack this picture up, up, up! Seeing the Green Goblin faced semi roaring down the streets during the opening credits while the tune “Who Made Who” pounds away in the background is damn near poetic.
MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is not an art film. It’s not meant to be taken seriously. It’s not even a horror film really. But King has claimed he wanted to make a junk food movie of the highest order and baby, he succeeded smashingly, maybe in part because he was, by his own admission in a state of coked-out oblivion. 30 years later, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE still has the same brutal, trashy, primal, violent power that pulses away in the background of all of the author’s works.And even if King fails to make good on the “scaring the hell out of you” promise he vows in the trailer (see below), his film is loud, rough, funny, silly, obnoxious and just plain powerful white trash terror at its redneck, working class best.