Summer of the 80’s: Maximum Over-drive

Summer of the 80s is a weekly column that will run until the end of August in which I watch a movie released during the summer movie season of the 1980s that I’ve never seen before. Every Friday, I’ll write about an 80s movie that came out on the same day, or near the same day, that correlates with the post here on the site. So follow me as I travel back in time to discover my lost summer at the movies.

About the movie

Maximum Overdrive was released on July 25, 1986 by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG).  It was written and directed by popular author Stephen King and marks King’s first and final directorial film effort.  The film stars Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington, Yeardley Smith, Frankie Faison, John Short, Ellen McElduff, J.C. Quinn and Holter Graham.  This R-rated film had an estimated budget of $10 million.  Over its theatrical run, it failed to recoup its cost, grossing only $7.4 million domestically.  It is currently only available on DVD.

Tagline

Stephen King’s masterpiece of terror directed by the master himself.

My thoughts

Maximum Overdrive was Stephen King’s answer to all the film adaptations of his books coming out of Hollywood that he wasn’t so pleased with.  He decided to take stock in the old adage “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”  That is all fine and dandy except it’s probably not best to do that while one is addicted to cocaine (which he was at the time).  So instead of creating a “masterpiece” as the advertising would have you believe, what you get is one of the most poorly written, poorly acted and utterly unbelievable stories, and it’s craptacular!  Oh and let’s not forget the music for the movie!  It was done by the popular band AC/DC!  King handpicked them to create some rockin’ music for a film in which he intended to scare the pants off people?  To each their own.

The movie starts off with a title card informing the audience that the Earth is passing through the tail of a rogue comet and, according to astronomical calculations, will remain in the tail for the next 8 days, 5 hours, 29 mins and 23 seconds (it’s literally that specific).  That fades away to reveal the story’s opening scene at a bank where an electronic sign above the doors to the bank is flashing “Fuck You!” to all the customers passing by.  An unnamed man (Stephen King cameo) walks up to the ATM to get money out of the machine and the screen flashes “You’re an asshole!” a bunch of times.  The man turns to his wife and says, “Honey! C’mon over here, Sugar-buns. This machine just called me an asshole!”  From here on out, all machines not only become huge dicks to the human race but they become murderous as well!

The story follows a group of people that get trapped inside the Dixie Boy truck stop as all the machines on Earth become sentient (how?) and go on a murderous rampage.  A bunch of semi-trucks surround the Dixie Boy, running over anyone who tries to escape.  One truck, which has a Jack Kirby style Green Goblin face attached to its front grille, becomes the leader of the pack of semi-trucks.  After becoming sentient, the vehicles even display a little personality here and there and are somehow able to interact.  When they see human beings (they have no eyeballs) they instantly get their murderous rage on!  Semi-trucks aren’t the only machines to get some red in their ledger, Walkman cassette players, lawn mowers, bulldozers, arcade cabinets and soda pop vending machines all kill people in the film.  Hell, a plastic toy police car kills a dog, though it’s highly suspect as to how that actually happened as they only show a shot of a dead dog with the toy in its bloodied mouth.  I really enjoyed some shots early in the movie of some of the machine aftermath.  The pans across dead people with bloody ears from their Walkman music players really sold the apocalyptic level of the story.  During the 80s and 90s, why weren’t more people looking at their Walkmans in fear?!  I mean, they sit on your ears and.. wait, how does that work?

There isn’t much in the way of in-depth characterization of the film’s cast of characters.  They all remain pretty one-dimensional and spout words that really only serve the scenes they are in.  King tries a little to build some relationships and character moments but it all just comes off as silly.  Emilio Estevez’s character, who finds himself a girlfriend to have sex with in all of this mess (she tells him that he makes love like a hero), is the “hero” of the piece, which isn’t saying all that much, and offers an explanation as to why all these machines are acting up.  “It isn’t the comet.  It’s a broom.  Imagine you’re a race of aliens, right?  And, you’re looking for a new place to live.  Say you’re looking for a planet like you and I looking for a new place to live.  A new house.  So here’s Earth.  Only it’s like this big old house.  And, it’s kind of polluted, dirty, and smoky.  Grease on the walls, soot in the chimney.  So, they send in their interstellar housecleaners.  Send in their broom.  Sweep us all up.  That’s what this is, it’s a broom.  Using our own machines to sweep us right off.”  I don’t know where the hell he came up with that out of the blue but Estevez monologued the shit out of that!  (Not really).

There is so much craziness to Maximum Overdrive.  From the trucks that force the Dixie Boy hostages at gunpoint to fill them up with gas (one character protests “you can’t feed them, it’s like giving into the Nazis!”) to the truck’s horn morse code conversations with the people, the film has so many great examples of so-bad-it’s-good moments.  One of my favorite characters is one of the women in the Dixie Boy that just can’t accept what the machines are doing and continuously screams, “We made you!  You can’t do this!  We made you!”  Keep in mind that she yells this repeatedly as she runs toward the murderous trucks.  She almost dies the first time she does it and then, not having learned her lesson, she does it again.  This time with a fatal outcome.  In fact, every character that dies literally does so out of their own stupidity.  One guy drops his glasses (or keys, it’s inconsequential) and decides to stop and pick them up as a semi-truck charges him.  Don’t mind that loud vehicle speeding towards you or anything.  I must not forget to mention that the Dixie Boy manager has an arsenal beneath the store and whips out some heavy artillery randomly and blows up some of the trucks with a bazooka.

Maximum Overdrive is a massive train wreck of a movie that is pretty entertaining, if you like bad movies.  Thankfully it has gotten a bit of a cult following over the years after it was critically panned when it was first released, and rightly so.  This is a movie you watch with friends and poke fun at and create a drinking game around.  I could try to sum it up in a few sentences but I think I’m just going to finish this off with some quotes from the movie that I think are exemplary of its quality.  Enjoy!

“I ain’t never seen a hero with his ass in the air like that.”

“Jesus is coming and he is pissed!”

“If you don’t get your hand off my leg, you’re going to be wiping your ass with a hook next time you take a dump!”

“I don’t give a ladybug!”

Brett: “Maybe tomorrow it will be our world again.”  Bill Robinson: “I don’t know. Was it ever?”

Trivia

The Dixie Boy truck stop was a set constructed 10 miles outside of Wilmington, North Carolina.  It apparently was convincing enough that several truckers tried to stop in, and eventually the producers had to put announcements in local papers saying that the Dixie Boy was just a movie set.

The trailer for Maximum Overdrive used the John Carpenter/Alan Howarth score from Halloween III:  Season of the Witch.

During the chaotic drawbridge scene at the beginning of the film, there are some people on a speedboat under the drawbridge as it is opening.  Those people are actually members of AC/DC.  Also on the bridge, you can find a van with the AC/DC logo on it as well.

Stephen King, being a former cocaine addict, later admitted that he was “coked out of my mind” the entire time he was making Maximum Overdrive and often didn’t know what he was doing.  When asked why he hasn’t directed a movie since, Stephen King responded “Just watch Maximum Overdrive.”

by Ben McBride

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7 thoughts on “Summer of the 80’s: Maximum Over-drive

  1. It truly is horribly made, although there are some glimpes of some pure genius as well. Like yourself, I particularly enjoyed the aftermath death scenes. My favorite had to be the little league field and the coach being nearly impaled through the brain with a Mello Yello can (it is the South, afterall) and the kid getting tagged in the ass with a can. Nevermind the fact that the soda cans look like they are being literally fired out of a batting cage machine. Stephen King has a great sense of macabre humor. A great example of this is “Creepshow” and the stories of “Creepshow II”. It is such as shame that this didn’t work out. I remember being a kid of 7 when this was released and thinking that the truck with the Green Goblin’s head was the most frightening thing on wheels. I then took it in for the first time around 1993 and was utterly disappointed. Emilio completely mailed it in, doing a poor, yet “grittier” version of his former self, Otto, from the fantastic, “Repo Man”. Great article. 🙂

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    1. Oh yea, the soda machine death scene is great, followed by the kid getting run over by the steamroller. I enjoy that he goes to those places but yea, it’s a misguided movie.

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  2. It was a time when electric turkey carvers were dangerous and when blood was the color of bright semi-gloss interior red paint.

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    1. I do enjoy that poster though…….a coked out Stephen King tearing through the side of a 36′ trailer with crazy eyes and playing the puppet master.

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  3. Actually I liked it, sure it was bad, all the appliances attacked everyone. But it had a great soundtrack and for the 80’s it kind of rocked.

    Much better than just another slasher film,

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    1. Yeah, AC/DC is a great way to go, but really……I’m a Bon Scott man, myself. It could have been worse though….it could have been Van Halen with Gary Cherone.

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