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The Gratuitous B-Movie Column: Why Maximum Overdrive is Awesome

June 13, 2019 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Maximum Overdrive

The Gratuitous B-Movie Column Issue #510: Why Maximum Overdrive is awesome

Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to the internets movie review column that has never been chased by a sentient, runaway steamroller, The Gratuitous B-Movie Column, and I am your host Bryan Kristopowitz. In this issue, issue number five hundred and ten, I explain why I think Maximum Overdrive is awesome.

Why Maximum Overdrive is awesome!

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Intro

Maximum Overdrive, which first hit movie screens in late July, 1986, is the only movie mega author Stephen King has directed, and I’d suspect that it will be the only one he ever directs. The movie, based on “Trucks,” one of King’s own short stories, wasn’t a hit with critics when it came out, and audiences stayed away (according to Wikipedia it made around $7.4 million at the domestic box office, less than its $9 million budget), but it must have made a small fortune on home video because it was in every video store I frequented back in the day. It was also a steady player on cable TV, although I can’t remember what channel it first aired on (and I’m talking premium cable here. I know that the movie was on the Turner channels quite a bit).I first saw it after renting it from a terrific video store that’s obviously long gone now, and rented it from other stores over and over again over the years. It really was one of those kinds of movies (you know, one you often rented when nothing else looked worth renting. I also rented Predator and Demolition Man using the same criteria).

Now, I know that, by and large, Maximum Overdrive is not what most people would call a “good” movie, and that includes the movie’s fans. The story makes absolutely no sense, and you get a sense after around a half hour or so that it’s never going to make sense. I mean, it’s a movie about machines coming to life and killing people after a comet passes by Earth, but apparently not all machines are subject to this “coming to life” stuff. Does the machine in question have to have batteries in it or access to electricity? And why do only some cars become sentient and kill people (big ass trucks, ice cream box trucks, and steam rollers/bulldozers are all super dangerous and off limits)? And then there’s the plane that buzzes by overhead without a pilot, a lawnmower that goes batshit and chases after a kid on a bike, and an Army jeep with an M60 on a swivel: how does any of that stuff become sentient? And what’s the deal with the jeep with the M60? How does it fire the gun? Is the gun sentient? If that gun is sentient, how do the Dixie Boy truck stop survivors use the guns in Pat Hingle’s basement? Why aren’t they sentient, too?

See what I mean? What the hell are the rules supposed to be here?

Now, if you look around the internets for trivia and whatnot on the movie, you find out that the production had “issues.” For one thing, King claims that he was “coked out of his mind” while making it and really had no idea what he was doing. Another thing was most of the crew was Italian and only spoke Italian, which caused serious communications issues amongst the entire operation. How would that set up produce a “good” movie? If it did happen, it would have been by chance, at best. It didn’t, though.

And yet, even with all of its problems, Maximum Overdrive is still a sort of big deal cult movie. I mean, here it is, 33 years later and people are still talking about Maximum Overdrive. Lionsgate via its Vestron Video Collector’s Edition brand recently put out an extras filled Blu-ray. No one is going to put out an extras laden home video release if there wasn’t a potential audience out there for it. And while Stephen King didn’t participate at all in this release, there are still several great interviews and behind the scenes things to look at (there are also two commentary tracks that I haven’t had a chance to listen to yet). If you’re a fan of the movie, the Vestron Video Blu-ray is well worth picking up.

Okay, so Maximum Overdrive isn’t a good movie, at least not in the “traditional” sense. The movie has issues. So how can Maximum Overdrive be awesome with all of its issues?

Reasons

The story makes absolutely no sense, and that’s why it’s scary: Yes, as I said, the movie doesn’t follow its own rules regarding how machines come to life and start killing people. I figured that out the first time I saw the movie. And yet, at the same time, I found the movie unsettling, even scary, and I still kind of do. I mean, who gives a shit about “rules,” those big ass tractor trailer trucks and electric carving knives and soda machines and video games are fucking killing people! What are the people still alive inside the truck stop going to do in order to continue staying alive? What can they do? In a sense, it’s almost like Night of the Living Dead. The premise is insane and ridiculous, and yet the bodies of the recently dead are coming back to life and attacking the living. How is that happening? Why is it happening? No one knows. But it is happening. Maximum Overdrive has the same sort of thing going for it. Machines are coming to “life” all on their own and attacking people. Why? How?

Now, yes, Maximum Overdrive provides an explanation for the phenomena, as Earth is in the tail of a comet called Rhea-M and aliens or something are responsible, but did the movie’s characters really know any of that? At best, they had minimal information about the phenomena (there were news reports on the radio and some of the people in the truck stop were seen reading newspapers with info on the comet, but we never really see them having in depth conversations about what’s happening based on that information). And the character played by Emilio Estevez, Bill Robinson, sort of figured out what was happening, but how did he do that? And did that knowledge really help him survive the attacks? Not really. He, like everyone else in the Dixie Boy Truck Stop, was more concerned about if and when the trucks circling the building were going to drive into the building and get them. How would they survive that?

So Maximum Overdrive is at its best when it’s a survival story. Everyone knows what’s happening. It doesn’t matter why it’s happening, though. The people just want to survive.

It’s about “regular” people: Every person that barricades himself or herself inside the Dixie Boy Truck Stop is a “regular” person. The place is filled with truckers, mechanics, cooks, waitresses, a travelling salesman, and a hitchhiker and, eventually, a kid. There isn’t one “expert” in the whole bunch. In fact, the closest thing the Dixie Boy has to an expert within its four walls is Deke, the kid that knows Morse code and can understand what the sentient Army jeep is demanding. You don’t see that kind of thing very often in any sort of movie. It’s always cool to see people you don’t necessarily expect to see in a movie in a movie. Think about what a Maximum Overdrive remake would look like today. The movie would likely be filled with computer analysts, cops that were in Special Forces back in the day, or college educated people with specialized skills. Regular people have to face off against the fantastic and horrific, too, you know.

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A kid gets run over by a steamroller: After a Little League coach is killed by a soda machine, a steamroller appears on the field and runs over a player that’s stuck on the field, trapped in his bicycle. It was at that moment that Maximum Overdrive and director Stephen King announced that this movie wasn’t fucking around. Anyone could die. Anyone. It didn’t matter if a character was a man, woman, kid, whatever. Anyone could die at the hands of a sentient machine, so everyone better watch the fuck out.

And then, when Deke (Holter Graham), one of the few Little League survivors, rides around town and sees some of the carnage from the sentient machine massacre, he finds a dead dog on the side of the road, presumably killed somehow by a remote control toy car. Holy shit! Kids and dogs can die in Maximum Overdrive? How many genre movies are brave enough to even contemplate doing either one, let alone both?

How many of you were freaked out by the steamroller scene when you first saw the movie? And how many of you want to see the version of the scene that was so nasty looking that it made George A. Romero sick while watching it? King reportedly put a blood pack on the head of the dummy that was to be run over by the steamroller, hoping that the blood pack would pop and create a streak of blood on the roller at the end of the scene. Instead, what happened was the blood pack exploded when the roller hit it, making it look like the dummy’s head exploded. It’s too bad that take and all of the other excised footage (Maximum Overdrive went through several edits to get it down to a version that was deemed acceptable by the MPAA) was unavailable for inclusion on the Vestron Video Blu-ray. No one seems to know where it is or if it’s still out there somewhere. Hopefully, one day, the missing footage will be found and the horror movie world will get the chance to see what made the Godfather of the zombie movie sick to his stomach.

Emilio Estevez and Laura Harrington are a pretty good couple: Emilio Estevez’s Bill Robinson is an ex-con on parole, working at piece of shit Hendershot’s truck stop as a cook because no one else will hire him and he needs a job. He hates his boss (the fat motherfucker wants him to work for nine hours a day but only get paid for eight. That’s bullshit!) and he hates his job, but he needs to be employed so he can eventually, maybe, one day, get the hell out of town and move on with his life. Laura Harrington’s Brett is a pretty hitchhiker who just wants to get to her next destination but because she’s a pretty hitchhiker she has to deal with lecherous, handsy assholes like the Bible salesman Camp Loman (he gave her a ride in his car, so he thinks it’s perfectly okay to fondle her leg and touch her in general). It’s why she carries a knife in her boot at all times. Bill and Brett meet when Brett arrives at the truck stop and they hit it off immediately. There’s an instant chemistry between the two.

Now, I’ll admit that the flirting and love making scenes between Bill and Brett aren’t great because their dialogue is terrible, but at the same time they’re very watchable because you actually like both Bill and Brett. They belong together. It makes you wonder where they would have ended up if the machines didn’t come alive and Bill and Brett didn’t find themselves holed up in the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. Would they have found themselves somewhere else down the road?

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Pat fucking Hingle: My God, Pat Hingle’s Hendershot is a real sonofabitch. He makes people work for him for free, he doesn’t give a shit about any of them anyway (Duncan, played by J.C. Quinn, is hurt when the gas pump sprays diesel in his eyes. When Hendershot finds out about what happened he doesn’t really care), and he’s running illegal guns out of his truck stop’s basement. He’s also, I believe, banging one of his waitresses (and I’m guessing that he’s forcing her to have sex with him because, really, who the fuck would willingly have sex with him?). The only mildly redeeming thing about Hendershot is that he allowed everyone to hole up in the truck stop and didn’t kick anyone out. I’m assuming that he did that because he had everyone paying for the food they were eating while waiting out the sentient machine apocalypse and he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that would give anyone anything for free. It’s too bad that Hendershot didn’t get run over by one of the trucks, or blown up via some sort of bomb/grenade. I would have loved to see that.

Hingle looks like he’s having the time of his life playing Hendershot. Hendershot is such an over the top piece of shit that you can’t take your eyes off of him. And when he starts shooting off rockets, look at the glee on the man’s face. I’d love to know if Hingle understood the script and what he thought of King as a director. And on top of that, why the hell did Hingle agree to do the movie in the first place?

Hendershot: one of the greatest asshole movie bosses of all time. A true piece of garbage.

Yeardley Smith and John Short: Smith and Short play Connie and Curt, newlyweds just driving to their honeymoon when the sentient machine apocalypse begins. Of course, the car Connie and Curt are in doesn’t participate in that apocalypse for some reason, but then if it did they wouldn’t have been able to participate in the great car flipping stunt that gets them to the Dixie Boy, and them not being there would have been a shame.

Smith is hilarious as the constantly upset Connie, asking in her high pitched, whiny voice “Curtis, are you dead?” And Short is quite funny, too, as maybe the only man in the world who could love and put up with Connie. I think it would be great to see what they’re up to now and if they’ve run into other weird shit in their lives. Maybe that’s something big Steve should look into doing? I bet people would watch it, a movie or a limited series TV show or something.

The Bible Salesman character: As played by Christopher Murney, Camp Loman, the sleazebag Bible salesman is, well, a sleazebag of the highest order. He’s a man of the Lord, spreading the Word and all that, but he’s also a handsy asshole who thinks it’s okay to touch Brett’s leg because, hey, he gave her a ride. Loman is also a foul mouthed degenerate who has no interest in listening to anyone (Bill can’t knock any sense into him despite almost being run over by one of the trucks, and when Loman is in the diner he won’t let those poor people he’s trying to sell a Bible to to get a word in at all. Loman just keeps talking and talking). When he finally gets hit by one of the sentient trucks and is thrown into the ditch to die, man, it’s incredibly satisfying because he’s just so awful,

Murney, who also played Edie Arcadian in The Last Dragon, is just so great at being terrible here. You don’t like him at all, and while you like watching him (he may be awful but he’s very entertaining), you can’t wait to see him get whatever he has coming to him because you know he isn’t going to survive the movie. If one of the trucks don’t kill him, someone inside the Dixie Boy will probably do it, and, really, who would blame the killer if they did it?

I didn’t know that Loman and Arcadian were played by the same actor until I started writing this piece. Now that I know and I look back at the scenes Murney is in, I totally see Eddie Arcadian with a mustache now. How the hell did I miss it before?

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The Green Goblin truck: This, of course, is the main evil truck in the movie, the Happy Toyz truck brought to the Dixie Boy by Frankie Faison’s Handy. It’s a Mack truck that has a big, plastic Green Goblin mask on the front with glowing red eyes. The truck looks evil before it comes alive and leads the other trucks in their siege on the truck stop, and when it does come alive, Jesus Christ, the truck is nightmare inducing. I mean, a truck should not have a face on it, and yet the Happy Toyz truck does. It’s a shame that it only takes one rocket to kill the truck, but at least the truck did get to kill one more human before it went to that big junkyard in the sky (that human was Brad, played by the great Leon Rippy. Brad decided to steal a dead woman’s diamond ring, a bad decision considering he was only a few hundred feet away from getting on the boat with the other Dixie Boy survivors).

The mere presence of the great Frankie Faison: Frankie Faison always classes up everything he decides to be in. From comedies like Coming to America to horror thrillers like the Hannibal Lecter movies to action flicks like Exterminator 2, when you see Faison is in the cast he’s going to be good. And his few scenes in Maximum Overdrive are good. He doesn’t overplay anything, and he manages to survive until the end. And, on top of all of that, he doesn’t seem all that upset by Bill destroying his truck. Faison’s Handy took obvious pride in the look and condition of his truck before it came alive and became a killer. It’s a damn shame what happened, man.

The ice cream truck: We first see the ice cream truck when Deke is riding around town, checking out the carnage. We hear the truck’s music off in the distance, and then we see it approaching Deke. No one is driving it. And as the truck gets closer we see that it’s been busy, probably hitting children and or their parents, waiting on the side of the road or on the sidewalk because that’s what you do when you hear the ice cream truck coming. Look at the truck’s hood. There are huge spots of blood on the hood. That’s so fucked up, man. Hitting kids and shit just wanting to buy some ice cream. But then that’s what happens when machines come alive and start killing people.

The movie is chock full of explosions: What Maximum Overdrive lacks in “real” human drama it makes up for it with fucking explosions. Trucks and cars explode. Bulldozers explode. The truck stop explodes (holy shit does it explode). And these are all real explosions with plenty of smoke and fire. There are action movies that don’t have the number of explosions that Maximum Overdrive has. Action movies are the cinematic domain of the explosion. How often do multiple things explode in a horror movie? It rarely happened back in the day, and it rarely happens today. So if you’re into seeing shit explode, check out Maximum Overdrive and revel in the carnage. It’s really something to see.

The soundtrack is by AC/DC: If you want your movie to have a hard rock soundtrack, what better band to get than AC/DC to do it? From the terrific opening titles original song “Who Made Who?” to the awesome incidental music to the sharp guitar scream sounds when bad shit happens to the catalogue picks King made (“Hell’s Bells,” “Sink the Pink,” “Ride On,” For Those About to Rock, We Salute You”), it’s so badass and it sounds so great that I’m surprised more directors didn’t try to get AC/DC to do their movie’s music. I wish that the full soundtrack to this movie would get a release one day, with all of the music cues included. I have the Who Made Who? album on CD but it doesn’t have everything on it. I think it’s something the world needs.

Stephen King’s “asshole” cameo: This happens right before the movie’s opening titles and has King as a man at an ATM machine absolutely perplexed by the message on the ATM screen. The machine is calling King’s character an asshole. And King’s character, after calling for his wife (“sugar buns”) to come see what he’s talking about, announces to the world that the machine just called him an asshole. How many directors would do that in their own movie? Who wouldn’t want to see Martin Scorsese do that kind of thing in one of his own movies?

Conclusion

Maximum Overdrive is a cult horror movie that will likely live on for many more decades to come. Even if it isn’t a good movie, it has something about it that makes it incredibly rewatchable. I’m shocked that someone hasn’t tried to remake it yet, as I’d imagine that the title still has some value. The “Trucks” short story was used as the basis for a TV movie called Trucks that appeared on the USA network in 1997 and starred Arnold Poindexter hisself Timothy Busfield. I haven’t seen that movie, but I do have it on a VHS tape somewhere. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to watch it one of these days. The reviews that I’ve seen for Trucks aren’t as scathing as the ones for Maximum Overdrive but I’ve yet to see one that claims Trucks is a good movie. Anyone out there see Trucks? Is it, well, good? Is it watchable?

I think a remake of Maximum Overdrive could work. I don’t think I would explain why the machines are sentient in the remake, and I think I would keep the evil machines in one location. I would also make the movie absolutely relentless because the fun stops when the trucks and machines and whatnot slow down. No one should be allowed to gather their thoughts and contemplate what’s happening because, holy shit, it’s happening! The story doesn’t really needs aliens in it, does it?

I don’t think I’m ever going to stop loving Maximum Overdrive. I don’t think the movie is ever going to be “too stupid” to stop watching. It will never make any sense, but, hell, when that kid gets squished by the steamroller you know that the shit is on and anything can happen. That’s always cool.

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