Emilio Estevez is an ex-con who works as a cook at the Dixie Boy, where he suffers under the oppressive rule of venerable character actor and Tim Burton’s Commissioner Gordon, Pat Hingle. Pat calls everybody in the movie Bubba, and he addresses them as such every single line. He also has a license plate that reads Bubba, which means he’s a Bubba too. There’s something egalitarian about that, isn’t there? Anyway, Hingle is a pretty standard issue Stephen King villain, a small-town tinpot who hates social progress and has stupid but strong underlings (King is still using this type in his books - check out the bad guy in Under the Dome. Big Jim Rennie is a slightly smarter version of Hingle’s Hendershot), but King mostly lets the character fizzle out. Just like the whole movie.
King is smart in starting the movie with a bang - after a ludicrous opening title card (which is only setting the stage for the most ludicrous closing title card in history, or at least until Unbreakable came along), he gets right into the machines going wild. We get an angry ATM machine and a draw bridge that causes a logically suspect but entertaining superaccident. So why, when the movie comes to the Dixie Boy, must we suffer through so much time waiting for the story to get going? An electric carving knife goes for a waitress’ arm, and future Independent Spirit Award winner Giancarlo Esposito gets fried by a video game machine after acting like a stock racist black character and trying to hoard cigarettes and change that malfunctioning vending machines spit at him (I wonder if Spike Lee had some words with him about this on the set of Do the Right Thing). It’s pacing that King can’t get, and he shows his problems right off the bat. Maximum Overdrive was made when King was doing end-of-Scarface piles of coke, and the film has the feeling of a shitty coke session - a big blast right up front followed by a shame spiral. And the inability to get it up. Overdrive comes out the gate like a lunatic bit of horror (and would have been better if the MPAA kept their mitts off it), but by about twenty minutes in you’ll be rooting for the Green Goblin truck to just smash Estevez.
In a lot of ways Maximum Overdrive is just The Mist, but poorly made and with shitty characters. And with terrible monsters - the trucks are ineffective unless you stand right in front of them and scream and cover your eyes, and they don’t retaliate much when Pat Hingle brings out a bazooka from the Dixie Boy basement. In fact they take a whole day to call in some kind of weird platform that has a machine gun attached to it (and don’t ask why THAT machine gun is evil while the ones the heroes use obey their masters). Combined with the fact that the movie has no ticking clock of any sort - there is an escape route for the humans that they could have taken an hour after the machine uprising began, but didn’t bother - makes the entire movie interminable. It’s just people waiting around, and they’re not even getting into the kind of interesting disagreements that make The Mist work.
As mentioned earlier, the people aren’t even particularly well defined. I couldn’t tell you who most of the folks in the Dixie Boy are - there’s a large group of expendable trucker types who have nothing to say or do. There’s Emilio Estevez, who despite being the hero, also has little to say or do. He runs outside every now and again to drag someone else inside, but he’s not particularly a man of action. His biggest plan is to give gas to the evil trucks (the escape route comes from a little kid who ends up at the Dixie Boy).
Pat Hingle is enjoyable enough as the blustering douchebag, but he’s got almost nothing to do as well. I actually ended up liking him the most because he at least took some action against the trucks and blew a couple of them up; while it could be argued that his offensive brought in the machine gun platform, I’ll tend to side with the character in a movie who fucking does something. These are motion pictures.
Then there’s Laura Harrington. She plays Brett, a drifter who arrives at the Dixie Boy with an ill-fated Bible salesman and who immediately falls into bed with Emilio Estevez (or rather into cot, which is set up in the basement gun stash room). I am trying to move away from hyperbole, so I’ll simply say that Harrington delivers one of the worst performances in cinema history. She’s certainly not helped by the astonishingly bad dialog she’s given; in one of the creepiest, greasiest post-coital scenes ever, she tells Emilio ‘You certainly make love like a hero.’ Harrington has some kind of a mid-80s tomboy thing going on, which isn’t sexy, but which makes sense considering that Emilio Estevez looks like a particularly butch lesbian in this film.
Yeardley Smith also makes an appearance. You know her as the voice of Lisa Simpson, but in Maximum Overdrive you’ll know her as the endlessly irritating newlywed whose continued survival is a smack in the face of the audience. She’s just another in a long series of Stephen King ‘comedic relief’ pain in the asses who don’t work on film; for whatever reason these characters are mostly harmless in print, but once translated to the real world in any one of a number of terrible King movies, they’re like battery acid in your earholes. It’s also worth noting that Yeardley Smith has done a topless scene in a movie. Why is a question I don’t have the space to cover here.
Once the initial attacks are over Maximum Overdrive (oh yeah, Harrington’s dialog is so bad that she’s saddled with working the the title into a line) goes into Maximum Idling mode. Watching the film again I wondered why the Green Goblin truck ended up being so iconic, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s through no fault of Stephen King. The truck works because Steve Ditko’s design works; the truck itself does almost nothing of note in the film. Hilariously the truck does follow the survivors once they’ve crossed a few miles of forest and headed to a marina; in a film that really makes you wonder things like ‘How the fuck is the truck seeing that?’ and ‘Why is that unmanned truck adjusting its own rearview mirror to look at Emilio Estevez’s ass?’ this final logic lapse is probably the one that got to me the most. It’s because the truck doesn’t just follow the survivors, who are going cross country, but because it sneaks up on them. A huge Mack truck with a fucking fiberglass supervillain face on the front manages to sneak up on people. Even still, it doesn’t show up until our heroes are on a boat and about to take off; for some reason Emilio takes the time to shoot the oncoming truck with the bazooka. Why not just let the fucking thing drive itself off the pier? That would have been funny.
Probably the most famous thing to come out of Maximum Overdrive is the AC/DC score, much of which is awful (it’s like bass guitar noodling and a riff on Bernard Hermann string stabs). What should be the most famous thing to come out of Maximum Overdrive is the absolutely insane trailer, featuring Mr. Stephen King himself. The author, buck-toothed and beady eyed, insists that while many people have directed Stephen King stories, he’s decided that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. So watch Maximum Overdrive and learn a thing or two, Kubrick and DePalma! Suck it, George Romero, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg! You could never make a movie where an ATM calls a guy an asshole! The best part of the trailer, though, is when King, backlit by the glowing red eyes of the Green Goblin, points right at the camera and says ‘I’m going to scare the hell out of you!’ But don’t take my word on it - watch the trailer right here:
As the film draws to an end (an end that was weirdly used in the remake of Dawn of the Dead), we’re informed via onscreen text that a Russian ‘weather’ satellite shot down a UFO the next day. It’s just such an abrupt and odd ending, and it’s at the worst spot in between explaining the machine uprising and leaving it mysterious. It’s a fittingly King-esque ending in that it stinks - sticking the landing is not in King’s bag of tricks. But Maximum Overdrive is full of other things from King’s bag of tricks: like The Mist and Under the Dome and a whole bunch of other King stories it’s an apocalyptic tale about people trapped together in confined spaces. Like Shawshank Redemption it’s got a shit tunnel. All of the characters are retreads of basic King types. Hell, all the movie is missing is a novelist or an appearance from Randall Flagg to really get it firmly in the King hypercanon (I’m assuming the picture is set in North Carolina for budget reasons, otherwise this would be all Maine up in the bitch).
Maximum Overdrive holds a special place in my heart because it’s one of the first films I remember being butchered by the MPAA. I had followed production religiously through the pages of Fangoria, being the good little King fanboy I was at the time, and I knew about all the best gore effects - just about none of which made it into the film. I don’t know that the movie would have been better if the Little Leaguer who got crushed by the steamroller had popped like a water balloon, since most of the deleted stuff is from the first fifteen minutes, aka the only watchable part of the film, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
Lest you, the viewer, think you got the worst end of Maximum Overdrive, know that cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi lost a fucking eye making this piece of junk. There was an accident with a remote controlled lawnmower, and Nannuzzi was henceforth never able to shoot 3D films. He sued King for millions and settled out of court; Nannuzzi died in 2001, but Maximum Overdrive wasn’t his last film. In fact he shot the final Roger Corman directed feature, Frankenstein Unbound. Explains much.
Weirdly the world did not leave well enough alone. In 1997 Trucks, the story on which Maximum Overdrive was based, was filmed yet again. This time Timothy Busfield was the lead. I haven’t seen the movie, but the reviews at IMDB make it sound like it’s actually worse than Maximum Overdrive. I imagine that a third version of this film could be some sort of Ring-esque video that kills viewers. I’m sure I will eventually get around to watching Trucks and then relating my pain to you in this column.
In the meantime remember the philosophical question posed by AC/DC in Maximum Overdrive‘s theme song: Who made who? (Hint: We made them. They’re machines).