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Reviews 31 Days of Horror IX

Maximum Overdrive

Maximum Overdrive

Stephen King

USA, 1986

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 13 October 2012

Source Peace Arch Home Entertainment DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror IX

Maximum Overdrive is nothing if not a peculiar film. Its somewhat hazily rendered premise is that all of Earth’s machines are rebelling, maiming and often killing their human masters. This apparently has something to do with a comet and maybe some aliens who want to colonize our planet, but the origin of the uprising remains mostly mysterious. And as far-reaching as this machine rebellion would seem to be, Maximum Overdrive is really only interested in how these dire events play out in Wilmington, North Carolina at a truck stop called the Dixie Boy, which is being terrorized by malevolent, quasi-sentient eighteen wheelers.

The storyline is a bit of a hash and the characterization is thin, all of which might lead one to wonder why wildly successful novelist Stephen King would choose this material – based on his own early-career short story “Trucks” – for his feature film directorial debut, and why at times even he seems to be uncertain of how seriously we’re supposed to be taking it. In coming to grips with the film’s strangeness, many fans and critics cite this frank explanation from King, reported in Tony Magistrale’s 2002 book Hollywood’s Stephen King: “The problem with that film is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn’t know what I was doing [as the director of the film].” Yet while King’s inexperience and problems with substance abuse perhaps help to explain some of Maximum Overdrive’s most nonsensical flourishes, if the film were simply a hastily conceived and ill-starred flop, it wouldn’t be particularly worth talking about over a quarter century after it was released.

Yet Maximum Overdrive is worth the attention of horror fans, and still retains a healthy cult following, because its sheer nuttiness is so irresistibly entertaining. After all, where else can one see Emilio Estevez as an ex-con fry cook-cum-action hero, standing toe-to-wheels with a disgruntled truck? Or a little league coach brained by a vending machine that’s launching soda cans like missiles? Or a wonderfully surreal scene that finds a child hiding from an unmanned, slow-moving ice cream truck as it plays a twinkling instrumental version of “King of the Road”? Or a pre-Do the Right Thing Giancarlo Esposito taunting an evil videogame with a pointed, “Yo mama!”?

This is a bad movie of the very the best kind because it is so thoroughly cracked, and certainly never boring. In lieu of the aliens or whoever is in control of the murderous machines, the central villain of the piece is for all intents and purposes an enormous toy truck with the likeness of the Green Goblin from Spiderman on its front grille and terrifying clown face painted to its rear. (In a rather ham-fisted irony, the Green Goblin “Happy Toyz” truck bears the slogan “Here comes another load of joy!” on its side.) This leads to all manner of absurdity, including killer POV shots from behind the unmanned truck’s windshield (Huh?), and a number of scenes that operate under the assumption that the Goblin truck has some means of communicating with and controlling other vehicles, though its never clear what that may be.

Maximum Overdrive is not about logic, and often feels like something that a bored teenage boy came up with while sitting through a dull high school class. There is certainly something to the film’s underlying anxieties about technology – I still frequently find myself launching into Wanda the truck stop waitress’ gloriously spastic shout of “YOU CAN’T! WE MADE YOU!” in the face of car trouble or computer glitches – but its treatment of the tech-horror theme is generally of the superficial “What-if-your-Walkman-turned-on-you?” variety.

To wit: King’s cameo comes early on, when he appears as a man attempting to use an ATM that refuses him his money and calls him an “asshole” over and over again in text. Now, if there is some kind of master plan behind the tech rebellion, it’s hard to imagine that the machines are going to do much to further the cause by engaging in name-calling. But it gets a laugh, so it all-but-opens the film.

As the writer and director of this picture, King is most interested in gore, explosions, scatological humor (including a crawl through a sewer), characters who speak almost exclusively in one-liners, and a soundtrack provided in its entirety by AC/DC. In other words: his directorial debut seeks to appeal to the bored teenage boy in all of us, and on that level, it’s actually pretty successful. If you’re searching for a remotely serious exploration of our reliance on technology and its potential dangers, look elsewhere. But if you want to see trucks get shot with bazookas, Maximum Overdrive is definitely your movie.

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