I Saw The MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE Exploding Head

And a few other bits that have been lost ever since.

Shudder's Creepshow Presents Different Seasons: The Many Sides of Stephen King, an Alamo Drafthouse series of Stephen King screenings in anticipation of It Chapter TwoClick here to see the schedule and get tickets!

It was just dumb luck that I spotted the ad in The New York Times that February morning, since I didn’t read the Times on a regular basis and this little announcement wasn’t in the movie pages; I believe it was in the Business section. But the paper was laying around the lobby of my dorm at New York University, and as I gave it a cursory read-through, these small words (which I may be slightly paraphrasing) leaped out at me:

“Special Sneak Preview Tonight of a New Movie Directed by the Master of Horror”

With the theater and showtime listed. This was back in the days when such enigmatic items promoting advance screenings would show up in the papers every so often (a few years earlier, I had missed out on one that turned out to be the only NYC showing of Great White before Universal put the kibosh on it). And I immediately realized what this one was: an advance peek at Maximum Overdrive, the much-anticipated filmmaking debut of none other than Stephen King. As a rabid King fan who had loved his short story “Trucks,” the basis of the movie, I was very curious about this one. Fortunately, I had no classes that night, so I called up a friend and the two of us headed to the venue that evening (I believe it was the Gemini on the Upper East Side).

As it turned out, this was an audience test screening, and we all got comment cards to fill out after it was over. This was no rough cut, though; the movie was in pretty complete shape, with opening titles, some optical effects and AC/DC’s soundtrack in place. The latter was a big plus for me, and it was a thrill to hear “Who Made Who” for the first time accompanying the memorable opening drawbridge scene.

There was another moment that made quite an impression, and it arrived during the first act depicting assorted mechanical rebellions against mankind. After a Little League coach got fatally beaned by a vending-machine soda can, his players scattered and one fell into the path of a rumbling steamroller. The poor screaming kid was flattened by the drum—and his head exploded in a burst of bright red blood.

That one got a lot of cries and jumps in the audience; it was rare to see a child killed so brutally in a mainstream horror film, especially with such a graphic punchline. It certainly startled me, and after the momentary shock had subsided, another thought occurred to me: There was no way this was going to get away with an R rating. Back in the less lenient ’80s, fright flicks were routinely relieved of their most gruesome moments to avoid the X, and even at the time, I had the feeling I had witnessed something that later viewers wouldn’t be able to see. As it turned out, the effect had been somewhat accidental: a blood bag had been placed on the dummy to get some red on the steamroller drum, but instead it got pushed forward and finally blew up from the pressure. While we were filling out our comment cards after the movie was over, I had to wonder how many people listed the exploding head as their favorite thing about the film (for our part, my friend and I were especially impressed with the Green Goblin-fronted “Happy Toyz” truck).

Once Maximum Overdrive went before one more preview audience—the MPAA—sure enough, that splattered skull hit the cutting room floor. When I went back to see the final release version that July, I wasn’t surprised to see it gone, and there were a few other gory bits lost as well, including additional blood streaming from the coach’s head welt, and part of Bible salesman Camp Loman’s (Christopher Murney) face falling off as he sits up in a ditch. Also missing was a scene that originally occurred toward the end, in which Bill (Emilio Estevez) and Brett (Laura Harrington) check out the bus with the plane sticking out of its roof. And a pair of bookends had been added to that sneaked version: The prologue in which the ATM calls the cameo-ing King an asshole, and the final explanation about the UFO and the Russian “weather satellite”, putting what I felt was too neat a conclusion on what had originally been a more effective open ending.

We had been told at the beginning of that screening that the movie was not to be reviewed, and though there was no internet back at the time for anyone to run a report, Cinefantastique writer Judith P. Harris was also in attendance and wrote about the sneak anyway in the magazine’s July 1986 issue. While taking the movie to task for the “stupid and unnecessary” rogue comet explanation for the machines’ rampage and some of the characterizations, Harris opined that “the comic relief…is a delight—especially the tiny-eyed, screechy bride Yeardley Smith” and that the movie, which she described as “a mechanical version of Night of the Living Dead…is a directorial debut to be proud of, and a film which will certainly do well with genre fans.”

As it turned out, critics (even those who specialized in horror) and audiences at the time begged to differ, and Maximum Overdrive was a roundly panned box-office flop. It was unable to hold its own in a scare-packed summer that also saw the releases of Aliens, The Fly, Friday the 13th Part VI, Poltergeist II, Psycho III and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 among others, and even King has dismissed the film. It has since caught on with a certain number of genre devotees, some of whom appreciate the movie for its camp value—and many of whom have wondered if that blown-out head will ever be restored to it. It has been said that a Karl Lorimar VHS release of Maximum Overdrive contained the uncut edition, though no one seems to have been able to produce a copy, and though the still seen above has appeared at numerous sites, its origin is unclear. Even last year’s jam-packed Lionsgate/Vestron Blu-ray couldn’t get that gag back in place. Will it ever see the light of a screen again? Perhaps only King himself knows for sure…