Soundtrack dissonance, or the juxtaposition of what is being conveyed visually on screen opposed to what the audience is hearing, is one of my favorite components of horror and action films. This disconnection is usually meant to enhance a deeper allegory of a scene in order to broaden the audience’s interpretation and overall experience. When it’s executed well, it’s great. I mean, who can forget that scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs where Mr. Blonde merrily tortures a cop to "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel?
As a Constant Reader and fan of Stephen King adaptations, I decided to revisit some of his old films before the release of IT this past week. In doing so, I quickly realized that his directorial debut from 1986, Maximum Overdrive, is the most extreme use of prolonged soundtrack dissonance I’ve ever witnessed. However, the soundtrack that consists solely of AC/DC tracks is the redeeming quality of this campy clusterfuck of a film and makes it worth watching to the very end.
In order to rectify Stanley Kubrick’s apparent wrongdoing in his adaptation of The Shining, King set out to direct his own from the short story Trucks, because “if you want something done right, you ought to do it yourself.” Fueled by frustration and literally lots of cocaine, he released a hilariously dated trailer to get everyone stoked about the film whose premise consists of machines coming to life and turning on their makers while the Earth passes through the tail of a comet. This is the plot of Maximum Overdrive and a subsequent mechanical mess of madness ensued.
The film symbolically opens with AC/DC’s "Who Made Who" while random cars and trucks casually glide across a highway. Once cigarette machines, arcade games, and cars accrue a large body count, survivors ultimately end up at a truck stop on the outskirts of town while idiotic, sentient trucks circle around them like sharks instead of, you know, just staying still and saving gas.
One of my favorite scenes is when a coke machine spits out cans at 100 mph killing off almost an entire youth baseball team. Similar to kill scenes in Dario Argento’s Opera, the heavy metal music almost extracts empathy for the character while the audience identifies more with the antagonist (in this case, killer electrical devices) and leads viewers to be excited about the next inventive death or torture sequence.
When a lone little-leaguer escapes by riding off in his bicycle, he cruises down the street observing the aftermath of the machines. He witnesses women strangled by telephone cords, and men dead in their yard after being run over by a lawnmower all while Angus Young, Cliff Williams, and Malcolm Young slay growling guitar riffs and pounding drums. The tone is initially intended to be terrifying (per King’s trailer warning) but instead turns comical and gives a light-hearted, true cheesy '80s feel to the carnage.
AC/DC also whips out some romantic rock riffs like clockwork whenever a female comes within two feet of Emilio Estevez. And in one scene, there’s a great nod to Bernard Hermann’s famous slasher tune from Psycho while a truck blows up in the background. Oh, did I mention the diner coincidentally has an arsenal underneath it that supplies the characters with bazookas, rocket launchers, and grenades? It’s like the entire profit from Firestarter went into the pyrotechnic budget for this film and the excessive use of explosions just adds to the ridiculous narrative while supporting the kickass soundtrack.
While dissonance is intended to harness a statement in an intellectual manner, the use of it in Maximum Overdrive succeeds to a very small extent, but at the cost of other pivotal devices such as character development and plot. All of the characters are one dimensional and uncomfortably obnoxious in their tropes. The allegory of machines coming to life and attacking us selfish, consumer-driven humans is a statement, yes, but it’s hard to take it seriously when a giant Green Goblin on the grill of an eighteen-wheeler is stalking people while Estevez literally whispers in its ear to calm it down. This is probably why he was later nominated with a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor. The movie has its flaws, but thankfully Maximum Overdrive makes you want to bang your head to the music, instead of against a wall. (King would later reference this soundtrack this film's soundtrack in the 1990 re-release of his post-apocalyptic classic, The Stand, where one of his characters changed the lyrics to "Flu Made Who.")
Stephen King’s love affair with rock music is evident in most of his work. It’s rumored that he sang “Ain’t No Fun Waiting Round to Be a Millionaire” from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap to the band in order to get them on board. A die-hard rock fan, he even owns a radio station in Bangor, Maine called KIT that plays all rock, all the time. You can also get your dose of rock from King with The Ramones references as he features quotes from their songs in several novels. The love was reciprocated when Dee Dee Ramone went on to write the title song for the 1986 film adaptation of Pet Sematary which also featured their song "Sheena is a Punk Rocker."
While most horror films of the '80s tended to lean toward the eerie synth scores (The Thing, Friday the 13th) or dreamy dread sequences like Jerry Goldsmith’s composition in Poltergeist, Stephen King took the unconventional route by making Maximum Overdrive straight rock-n-roll to the core. King was given the keys to drive this glass-shattering, blood-splattering film straight into the ground but his passion for music shines through and AC/DC delivers the raunchy riot in all the right ways.