Maximum Overdrive (1986 De Laurentiis Entertainment Group Dir. Stephen King)
Let us drop hyperbole for a moment and admit that this is the best feature film Stephen King has ever directed. Those of you who don't have your hymnals open to page 19 won't get that joke, and if you didn't bring your hymnbook with you, I'm not going to explain things. This is, however, King’s single best directorial effort with no mistake or argument. I’ve heard that the impetus was a bet between King and George Romero after King commented that making a movie didn’t look all that hard. At the time, King was working with Dino De Laurentiis, who I will always love because the man never turned his nose up at a stupid idea. DEG Produced both Evil Dead II and Cat’s Eye as well. Without him, there might not be a Maximum Overdrive and the world would be a darker place. Based on the short story Trucks, King pulls double duty as both director and writer of this magnificent piece of Grade A 80s era cheddar.
The man, the myth, the stupid clip-on sunglasses.
Maximum Overdrive is a film that challenges you as a viewer. It’s a movie that asks “Am I really a bad movie?” to which you are expected to answer “Well, yeah, obviously.” Except, if you dismiss it like that you’re going to get hit right between the eyes with “Yes, but are you sure that wasn’t deliberate?” and then you’ll have to stop and think. Because there is this sense that maybe it was supposed to be like this, that maybe King got exactly what he was going for with this movie. Go watch Creepshow again and tell me this man doesn’t have a screwy sense of humor. Twenty years before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were hailed as heroes for failing with Grindhouse, Stephen King failed with Maximum Overdrive. Not artistically, financially. I think it was too early, and too many people didn’t quite get the idea of winking comedy and horror put together yet. Odd, because Creepshow had come out almost five years before this.
Ah the 80s, when an entire movie could be explained with a single paragraph.
The movie begins with a text wall explaining that a comet made everything happen. This isn’t really important, because the rest of the story will more or less follow the story of Trucks in that the characters don’t actually know why the machines have decided to rebel. The first person to have any lines is King himself, getting the cameo out of the way to complain about and ATM calling him an asshole. And then the AC/DC music starts and you have to love King all the more. Who else gets one of the best rock bands in the world to score his movie? The first sign that the machines have more than profanity in mind when a drawbridge decides to raise itself. This movie isn’t 6 minutes old and we’ve had asshole, what the hell, shit, goddamn, Jesus Christ and fuck all spoken by characters. Shit doesn’t get a mention until later. If only there was a naked woman this would be everything I love about crappy 80s movies. Okay, technically, there are naked women, there are some photos from dirty books taped up to a wall in the truck stop. It's not quite a later day Pearl, but you've got to make allowances. You don’t get everything in the first 6 minutes, the gratuitous machine guns don’t show up until later. We did get a blond in a white headband though, and that was awesome. It’s like we’re witnessing the Citizen Kane of 80s horror.
It’s not so much hard to come up with a joke for this shot as much as it’s hard to pick a joke.
After the opening madness at the bridge, we go to the Dixie Boy Truck Stop where the bulk of the movie will take place. Good idea, a single shooting location in North Carolina provided a lot of economy in those days and made it possible to show more of America than just New York and L.A. in the bargain. We’re introduced to our hero, a fella named Billy Robinson, who we are told is an ex-con. While we’re introduced, the games room of the truck stop is going nuts and braking, where upon a young man tells the machines how he feels explaining, “Your momma!” before stuffing his pockets with cigarettes that the vending machine begins to spit out. After that, a man is sprayed in the face by a malfunctioning pump hose and screams and screams. The reason Billy being an ex-con comes into the story is that there is a subplot that, in true drive-in fashion, fails to go anywhere about the boss of the Dixie Boy being a corrupt so and so. This reflects the deep seated corruption we remember from Chinatown, only it's more personal and believable here.
It’s like Film Noir. Only, you know, not.
While Billy is talking to the boss, a waitress is taking care of the grill, until she’s attacked by an insane electric knife that is. The knife effect is really neat since it turns towards her before switching itself on and cutting into her arm. Blood sprays all over the place and Billy takes a hammer to the knife, killing it after several blows, proving him to be a kin to St. George who slew the Dragon of Silene all those years ago. Only Billy has no horse, or sword, or armor and goes off on an electric knife with a hammer. Still though, in this modern age without noble heroes, we take what we can get. Now while that’s going on, the fellow in the game room manages to get himself electrocuted and Sir Billy of Robinson is sent in to deal with him.
All he says is “Yo momma!” but when he says it, we believe him.
Suddenly, the focus of the movie shits to a little league game, where a young man has just hit what is sure to be the winning run of the game. This scene would later be mirrored in Kitano Takeshi's 3-4 x Jugatsu only that movie was a fantasy of yakuza violence and retribution where a loser imagines himself to be slightly less of a loser where as here the kid makes the run and wins the game. The coach goes to buy some sodas (which I assume it a southern word for pop) and is attacked by the machine in a way that Jamie Hyneman would later use for a 7 Up commercial. As you are no doubt becoming aware, Maximum Overdrive is both the alpha and the omega of pop culture. The machine attacks kids left and right, before a steamroller comes for them. How awesome is it to still hear the under 16s using phrases like “Oh shit!” and “What the hell?” in a movie? We don’t get that anymore. Mom’s groups have fits and don’t let us have any fun these days. Once the kid who was good at baseball gets away, we shift story lines again. These interweaving story lines will come together in the end, focusing into a single thread, much like L.A. Confidential would do later. We’re introduced to a lecherous bible salesman and the girl he’s picked up names Brett. Point of order, why did girls stop wearing suit jackets with the sleeves pushed up and fedoras with their jeans and white shirts? She looks so good, and other girls looked great when that was the fashion.
Incredulous cuttie is incredulous.
When they get to the Dixie Boy, the big truck attacks. You shouldn’t be surprised that they get to the Dixie Boy. Everyone in this movie eventually gets to the Dixie Boy. Like Rome, all roads lead to the Dixie Boy. Once again the movie shifts and we meet Curt and Connie, a nice couple on their honeymoon. I don’t know about the guy, but Connie sounds a lot like Lisa Simpson, so I’m assuming that The Simpsons used an actress that imitates her voice with out the southern drawl in an obvious homage to this film. As the two of them stop at the wreckage of a filling station, they’re merciless attacked by an enraged tow truck. Curtis, at first, tries to reason with the truck, missing the patches of blood that adorn the front of the cab. For the first time, we get a confirmation that there is no one actually in the vehicles that are attacking people. One wonders why the cars aren’t acting up like the trucks and knives, but perhaps being more domesticated they don’t rebel as easily.
Please Matt Groening, get your show started and save me from all this.
Billy, being the heroic type, goes to investigate the big rig that tried to kill the bible salesman and Brett a scene or two ago. He’s still of the belief that someone must have gotten into the rig, but the facts don’t bear that out. As he investigates, Brett sneaks up on him and that have a Lead Male/Lead Female sort of conversation. She actually does just look at him and say “You’re cute” as an opener. It’s the sort of sparkeling dialogue I’d expect from My Man Godfrey, not some b-grade horror flick! She then asks “Did you ever see that much nothing at 10:15 in the morning hero?” which you must admit, is a hell of a philosophical question. Think about it for a moment. Have you ever seen that much nothing at 10:15 in the morning? I haven’t. These sort of weighty questions harkens back to The Seventh Seal and the questions that picture raises for the viewer. Only, instead of asking the question with impenetrable symbolism, it asks it outright through the medium of insane machinery on a rampage. In that way, it makes these questions more accessible to the mainstream audience and thus creates a more palatable sense of dread when facing a cruel an uncaring universe.
You’re the lead male
Yeah, and you’re the lead female
And this is the 80s. You know what that means don’t you?
We get to shoot guns later?
…Yes, that as well.
Our baseball player rides through the suburbs of his small North Carolina town, witnessing the violence that has be fallen his neighborhood and following in their wake like the narrator of War of the Worlds, dodging death at every turn when even the lawn mower comes after him. As it turns out, the baseball player is the son of the man who got the facefull of diesel in his face. He decides that he has to get to his son, announcing that “I gotta find my boy” to the world entire. This sort of fatherly dedication is right out of The Godfather. His dedication is short lived, since a rig runs him down almost upon the instant, killing him and driving the inmates of the Dixie Boy into the building. All but the bible salesman that is, who runs out to confront the evil like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, only in this case the windmill actually is the imagined giant. The reward for his gallantry is a blow that sends him right out of his shoes and into a ditch.
Just a little hay fever.
The group tries to raise help, but the radio is a machine and the machines have risen against them. This story line would later be mirrored in the Terminator series, and while the first movie came out before this, the original story of Trucks is clearly the inspiration for that movie’s back-story. The trucks now begin a campaign of terror by driving around and around the Dixie Boy in an attempt to break the spirit of the humans within. Meanwhile Curtis and Connie head inexorably toward the Dixie Boy, only to be menaced by another of the phantom trucks. Connie cries out “Why is this happening?” which is both a reasonable question and a great demand to the gods for an explanation for the entirety of the mortal world. Curt and Connie barely make it into the Dixie Boy parking lot. Connie then engages in a stream of profanity hardly seen outside of a Tarentino movie. As Billy and Brett attempt to get Connie and Curtis from the wreckage of their car, the first of the weapons come out. The boss of the Dixie Boy pulls out a bazooka, yes a bazooka and fires a round into one of the trucks which destroys it. Score one for the human race. They then fire a second rocket and boom goes another truck. It’s like Rambo, without the muscles, the mullet or the knife fetishism.
It took hours for them to realize that the first one in line was following the last one.
This leads to a tender male lead/female lead moment between Billy and Brett. This is because there must be a love story and they’re the lovers for today. Then they investigate the armory in the basement and discuss how Billy got to be an ex-con for a bit. It's a confession that will be mirrored years later when George Lucas would borrow the scene in Episdoe Two, having Anakin explain his murder of the Sand people to Padmé. Meanwhile, the baseball player continues his Odyssey like journey toward the Dixie Boy, but finds his progress stymied by a series of obstacles put before him by the almighty. We then cut back to Billy and Brett, who have consummated their Male Lead/Female Lead status in the back of the truck stop, because romance happens anywhere. I was going to put a TV Tropes link here about how everyone always falls in love, but I can't seem to find it and frankly, after 10 minutes I don't care anymore. You'd think that'd be the easy one to find, but no. I guess it's so obvious that there is ALWAYS a romance they don't even bother to mention it. So fuck them, let's get back to the movie. They then discuss the idea of going to a small island which is free of motor vehicles for the duration of the madness. One sentence? I continued for one sentence?
Nice to see Dee Synder kept working after the operation.
Sadly, the waitress has decided to go insane. She bangs a beer bottle on the table as she demands “They can’t do this” and then runs outside screaming “We made you!” to the machines demand that they can’t do this. The machines however, like the slave revolting in Spartacus, insist that they can. Once the machines decide they’ve had enough, they cut the power and leave their former masters in the dark. After a moment of that, the bible salesman proves that he isn’t quite dead by screaming in pain. The Dixie Boy inmates, or at least Billy and Curtis decide to go and rescue him. Connie complains that he should go and tells him not to make her a widow on her wedding day. He begs her “Do not forsake me, oh my darling, on this our wedding day”. It’s just like Gary Cooperonly without him selling a load of crap to McCarthy in hopes of ruining a lot of people he didn’t like. In greatest 80s fashion he and Billy strap on a bazooka and an M-16 before they run out to save the day. The guns aren’t immediately useful as they only want to get to a large shower drain in order to sneak along and find the salesman while AC/DC rocks along with them.
I will not make a lit fart joke, I will not make a lit fart joke, I will not make a lit fart joke…
It’s always great seeing in a movie when someone waves a small flashlight and it results in a grip off camera waving a large halogen light to create the illusion that the room is being lit by the single bulb. Billy and Curtis come out of the drains to discover that the bible salesman has passed on, but they do find the young baseball player and thus complete the trinity of useful male characters in this movie, bringing them all together at last. We are then left and the characters are all allowed to sleep for a while.
He actually believes this is a “Yee-Ha” situation we’ve got right here.
The morning of day two begins with a little military mobile platform and a bulldozer pulling up to the Dixie Boy. The dozer gets their attention by pushing away the wreckage of the destroyed vehicles and then attacking the front of the Dixie Boy. There is a small attempt to fight back, but the platform has a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho. The military scoot then pulls up and honks out at them inmates in Morse Code, delivering terms to them. The baseball player got a merit badge in Morse recently, so it's up to him to translate. Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be a merit badge just for knowing Morse code. There is the Radio Merit badge, which requires knowing Morse, but none for the code itself. The machines explain that if they pump gas, the inmates of the Dixie Boy will be allowed to live. They agree because, well, what else can they do? A rock montage then ensues of them filling the trucks all day long. “They don’t understand how a man gets tired” Billy complains as the unending stream of trucks just keep on coming. This of course is the symbolic complaint of the proletariat against the uncaring factory owner who constantly uses men and grinds them into the dust. There will be no union to help them though, because the trucks won’t allow such a thing. This is more or less where the original story ended, with them filling up the trucks, slaves forever under the wheels of the trucks. However, here there is a little more going on and besides it's the 80s and we have rocket launchers. Billy suggests that a race of aliens is controlling the machines to destroy the humans and wipe the place clean before infesting the planet. From there, he begins to form a plan.
See? Heat, camel, it’s all symbolic.
A hand grenade into the platform removes the issue of the machine gun. Once they remove that threat, they run from the Dixie Boy, slipping away through some of the other drainpipes. Once the trucks realize that they haven’t seen the humans for a while, they start to smash into the Dixie Boy, turning it into a big pile of kindling. The destruction of Dixie Boy reminds me of the destruction of… oh hell, I don’t know. Pick something. I mean I could mention a lot of things, but it’s all a bit silly at this point and I can’t think of anything good at the moment. I mean damn, I’ve compared this movie to enough things, you think of one for a change! Why is it always me that has to do all the heavy lifting around here?
Can I a get a Woo Hoo?
The Dixie Boy escapees then run away to a marina where they finally finish off one of the main trucks and escape on a sailboat to the island we talked about earlier. I haven’t really talked about it, but you know what truck I mean. What’s perhaps most surprising is the sheer number of survivors there are. In most movies the group is picked off one by one until one three or four remain. Now there is a certain amount of picking off, but there are a dozen or so survivors by the end of this movie. Far more live than died. The end claims that a large UFO was destroyed and that six days later the world passed through the tail of the comet and everything was alright after that. The survivors of the Dixie Boy, we are told, are still survivors. And what better way could you end a movie than that? It makes the Triumphant ending to Star Wars seem small potatoes by comparison.
There! I showed the Green Goblin Truck! Happy now?
I guess I can understand why someone might not like this movie. It’s not funny enough to be a pure comedy, but there are too many jokes for it to be a straight horror. It’s not an easy movie to categorize. It also addresses too many of the greater questions that face humanity, which could scare away the sort of person who never looked into the abyss and found the abyss looking back. There are also some people who have no taste in music at all. Those folk might not like the AC/DC songs, but those people are bastards and should be punched in the crotch. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that the story telling is very much the “Tab A into Slot B” style with action around the story points to pad the run time. That’s not really a problem for me though. King was a first time director after all and at least his movie makes sense. Had he made more, I’m sure he would have done even better. No, in the end, this is the finest movie of its kind to come out of the 80s and it’s everything I love about cheap cinema. It’s filled with screwy ideas, a lot of “yeah, whatever” explanations as to why some very convenient things happen, and it lets the scrappy good guy win in the end. What’s not to love? Yesterday’s review was painful, but this was joy.
And the whole epilogue is explained in one paragraph too. God, I miss those days.
This may just be the best movie ever made.
Did you come? I came.
Happy Halloween everybody!