Maximum Overdrive Review (1986)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Maximum Overdrive Review (1986)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on September 11th, 2018 | Movie Review | Survival, Road Trip, Desolate, Car

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It’s about the machines of the world unexpectedly rebelling, and the struggle of the humans to fight back.

Maximum Overdrive was directed by Stephen King and stars Emilio Estevez (from Nightmares), Pat Hingle (from Not Of This World) and Laura Harrington.

The day horror went into overdrive.

Maximum Overdrive Review

Keep On Truckin’!

Oh goody, it’s time to review another Stephen King movie! Oooooh, nuts. It’s this one.

Maximum Overdrive is not only based on a Stephen King story, but it is the one time Stephen King actually directed himself, a fact upon which he gloats in the trailers. “...I finally decided if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.” So this is Stephen King, with no excuses this time. Either he’s a brilliant directorial savant who was too busy writing to bother before, or we’re about to see a big ham get roasted to a tasty barbecue glaze.

If you have to ask which is it, you don’t know Steve-O very well.

But look, I honestly think this turned out exactly how he intended it to. Maybe Stephen King never wanted to be taken THAT seriously? Remember, he’s stuck in the Elvis 1950s. To him a good horror movie (and I have read his book Danse Macabre, so this is right from the lobster’s mouth) is a movie like The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). He even comes up with nice things to say about Robot Monster (1953). Stephen King, like George Lucas, makes tributes to works that impressed him as a kid.

Hence, the Present Author won’t judge this one based on my usual haughty standard for Le Horror As Serious Art (), but more like a cheesy pulp yarn as it seems to be intended. Too bad the movie struggles to live up to even that standard.

The Plot

Maximum Overdrive starts out with its heart in the right place. We get a text block explaining to us that Earth is under the effects of some funny space gas, then immediately our first scene is a bank marquee flashing time, temperature, and “F*** YOU.” This is what true Black Box AI looks like, folks. And here’s the big lobster himself, Stephen King, in a cameo as the first victim of machine harassment. Aw, he thinks he’s Alfred Hitchcock, isn’t that cute?

Starting with a drawbridge that decides to go off on its own and dump commuters into the water, machines, to put it bluntly, run wild. At the Dixie Boy diner (if King sets all his stories in Maine, why are they always filmed like they were set in the Dukes of Hazard's back 40?), machines from pinball games to electric carving knives attack, accompanied by the shrieking guitar version of the shrieking violins from Psycho. Team Human is soon holed up in the truck stop while Team Truck menaces them as they circle outside. We’re basically getting the same story as The Mist, but with trucks instead of Jurassic abominations and a gas station instead of a grocery store.

We even have all the Stephen King stereotypes: The incorrigible Southern Baptist Bible-thumper, the corrupt small-town hick who owns the Dixie Boy and abuses his employees because they’re all on parole, the hero with a dark past in parolee Billy (Emilio Estevez), the instant slut (Laura Harrington) who hits on Billy at first glance, the black dude who speaks jive and dies first, and the irritating female shrieker. That last is Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson, which she keeps here). Her character is an idiot prattler who screams and nags, the human personification of nails on a chalkboard. Just when you’re wondering where’s the alcoholic writer King normally casts, you remember Stephen King had a cameo at the beginning.

But anyway, whatever shall become of Team Human? Will they escape the tyranny of Team Truck? Well, it’s a Stephen King story, so expect casualties on both sides. And we hope you don’t need your movies to make sense, because this movie doesn’t have a lick of it. There’s no logic between which machines “wake up” and become hostile and which stay normal. Trucks and other machines idly stand by until the plot calls for them to attack. As for the characters, they occupy a broad spectrum from bumpkin savant to utter moron who deserves to get run over by a semi and inevitably does. And top that off with several deux ex machina moments that will cause more than a couple burn marks on your forehead as you facepalm.

“Here comes another load of joy!”

King’s story Trucks was originally published in Cavalier, a nudey-cutie 1970s Playboy ripoff. It was very short, taking place over the span of the film’s scenes at the Dixie Boy truck stop. In my previous Stephen King review, I’ve talked elsewhere about what a bad idea it is to stretch a short story better suited to a Twilight Zone episode into a feature length film, and the same is true here again.

Nevertheless, the movie manages to be entertaining if you treat it like a Troma black comedy. Throw away your brain and watch as we bazooka these trucks! There’s one flying off a cliff and bursting into flames! The effects are well-done with some awesome road rage battles and car stunts, the soundtrack with AC/DC rocks, and there’s plenty of scenes which are memorable either because they’re so silly (the killer pop vending machine!) or so dark (a steamroller squashes a kid flat... have a nice day!), only minutes apart, yet. The film has a decent pace, with plenty of action, so it’s actually a fairly easy watch as long as Lisa Simpson isn’t screaming her kidneys out and you ignore the lamest jump scares in horror history.

Two of the few trucks to carry real-world logos are Miller beer and Bic lighters, if you need a hint as to this movie’s target demographic. Still don’t get it? One character is even shown reading High Society magazine while sitting on the pot! Do we have to spell it out for you?

The rest of the cast isn’t too irritating, with the Green Goblin truck being a character unto itself. Emilio Esteves is always watchable and his presence here isn’t the first time he’s dealt with a vehicle made lethal via alien vibes (we mean Repo Man, in case some of you poor wretches never learned of that punk masterpiece). And for Stephen King’s first turn behind the camera, I think he should have deserved a second chance after rehab.

While it’s not nearly as much fun as other movies in this vein, Maximum Overdrive might be considered a trailing second to Blood Diner, From Dusk Till Dawn, or even better, Rubber. It’s corny and stupid, but you’ll appreciate it as pulp horror after a few Miller beers and smoking whatever you burn with a Bic lighter and an apparatus you ordered out of the back of High Society, assuming it’s legal in your state. Just don’t expect anything close to a serious horror movie, because on that metric, Maximum Overdrive runs out of gas.

Hey, if you think that was bad, you should see the puns I made at Children of the Corn!

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