Riddle me this, Batman. What do you get when you take one of the most popular writers of the time who is the peak of his drug and alcohol abuse and give him total authority to direct a movie? Then, you add a cast that includes a Brat Packer, the future voice of Lisa Simpson and the future ex-Mrs. Donald Trump, aka Marla Maples, and what the hell, have AC/DC perform the music?
And what the fuck? Just have action take mostly at a truck stop in the south where the Bubba good ole boy who owns it has a full arsenal as his disposal.
So, what do you get? You get by far one of the most crazy as fuck, balls to the wall sci-fi/horror/action movies that never knows if it wants to be a straight poorly made movie or a B-movie parody comedy.
Either way, a movie like Maximum Overdrive, released on July 25, 1986 was the most craziest Stephen King adaptation at the time. What was fucked up was King himself was the one was at the helm this time.
In the 10 years since a young director named Brian DePalma directed his first novel Carrie, a cache of directors had directed his books adaptation. Tobe Hooper helmed ‘Salem’s Lot for TV. Stanley Kubrick did The Shining. David Cronenberg did the very underrated The Dead Zone and John Carpenter had directed Christine.
Then, there was Cujo and Firestarter. George A. Romero had directed Creepshow which King wrote the screenplay for, so he was on a roll in Hollywood considering that his wife, Tabitha, had to take the kids to the neighbors to use their phone so she could to tell him about the telegraph he received on how Carrie had been sold for publication.
Set in then near future June 1987, Earth is in the tail of a sentient comet that causes many electrical and mechanical objects to operate on their own with the sole purpose of harming, maiming or killing people. I might add that when this movie was released Haley’s Comet was popular at the time as it was flying through the skies.
Most of the action of the movie takes place at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop outside Wilmington, N.C. This was one of many movies made in the mid-1980s under producer Dino De Laurentiis as he was trying to making an independent studio DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) operate outside of the big Hollywood studios. It was set in North Carolina because he realized filmmaking can boost the economy and helped found the North Carolina Film Commission.
Ironically, 1986 would be the big year for DEG as they released a lot of movies, Blue Velvet, Raw Deal and The Transformers animated movie. Most of them were duds and within two years of this movie’s release, DEG had folded. Sadly, production on a little teen comedy called Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure had already been completed but DEG was in bankruptcy and that movie had to be distributed by Orion Pictures. I comment no further on this.
Even on a modest budget of $9 million, Maximum Overdrive didn’t even break even reportedly only nabbing $7 million. And anyone who paid the money for tickets probably regretted it. Even seeing it in the fourth grade, I was amazed at how bad it was.
It’s full of bad acting, badly written characters, bad dialogue and even the special effects look cheap and the action seems pedestrian which is ironic considering that it’s mostly about vehicles that run on their own.
King adopted the movie loosely on a short story “Trucks” that he sent off to be purchased in the adult magazine Cavalier. Seriously, how the fuck did this movie get made?
If anything else, it’s a testament to how DeLaurentiis was a producer who needed to say “No” more often. Let’s not forget that later in 1986 King Kong Lives was released.
Maybe DeLaurentiis felt King had been around so many directors, he was able to shadow them. He had a good friendship with Romero. But being associated with someone doesn’t always spell success.
Destruction takes place everywhere according to radio reports but apparently, sedan vehicles are not effective. It’s just the big semi trucks, one of which belongs to a toy company that has the image of the Green Goblin in place of a grill. Of course, the Green Goblin becomes the big bad motherfucker of the movie killing two people at the diner where everyone takes refuge.
The hero of the story is a short-order cook, Billy (Emilio Estevez), who is on parole. His boss, Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle in a role that he’s having too much fun with), is a crooked good ole boy S.O.B. who makes Boss Hogg look like Mr. Rogers. He employs ex-convicts at the truck stop so he can force them to work an extra hour off clock. This is said in one scene but nothing more comes of it. It’s just to show that Bubba is a slimy man, who has an arsenal of weaponry in the basement he more than likely bought on the black market.
Billy immediately hooks up with Brett Gellman (Laura Harrington), a hitchhiker, after they help a newlywed couple Curtis and Connie (John Short and Yeardley Smith) who were hoping to seek help at the truck stop but their car crashed. Brett was traveling with a sleazy Bible salesman who also drove a sedan that took refuge at the truck stop.
In a crazy idea, the trucks just circle the truck stop as everyone keeps wondering what’s going on. The electricity goes so they don’t have access to the radio. And the bodies are piling up. The salesman gets hit and lies bleeding in a ditch. One of the gas attendants gets hit while his son, Deke Keller (Holter Graham) bicycles all the way from the suburbs to the truck stop.
Deke witnesses first hand the destruction as a soft drink machine kills his baseball coach with flying cans of soft drinks. Considering that they weigh three-fourths of a pound, getting hit in the head with one flying at a huge spread probably would kill someone. But when the cans go flying toward the rest of his team, they just seem to fall down, including a fellow teammate who falls off his bike and can’t get out of the way of a steam roller that crushes him.
Reportedly, the scene was supposed to be more brutal, but even Romero talked him out of showing the more bloody images. Watching it now, I’m reminded of the gag in Austin Powers. How fast does a steam roller really go? And couldn’t an average size teenage boy in the mid-1980s run away from it?
Apparently, the trucks have been given record speed. Ever been behind one of the semis at a stop light, the drivers have to shift through three gears just to negotiate the intersection. How can they quickly shift into gear and speed up so fast to hit someone? And why does everyone stand still screaming at these rigs come toward them?
When the rigs start moving a little bit at the gas station, Billy goes to investigate instead of the truck driver, played by Frankie Faison. And what does Billy take with him? Does he take the hammer he used to destroy an electrical knife that came to life? Does he take any type of knife or sharp object from his kitchen?
No, he takes keys. And considering that they can’t even crop or film the scene in which we see intended jump scare coming, it’s not much of a scene. And what good would some keys pocking out between knuckles do?
That’s part of the silliness. This is a movie where a jeep with a mounted M-60 is able operate the machine gun, even though it’s just mounted. If an M-60 can be shoot on its own, why does the rest of the firearms in the basement not just go off?
This is one of the biggest question this movie never answers. It seems the trucks are letting the people live because they need fuel, or something like that. By his own admission, King has said he was “coked out” of his mind and had no idea of what he was doing. Anyone who knows King’s turbulent early years knows that his wife gave him an ultimatum one time, he could have the booze and the drugs or her and the kids, but he couldn’t it all.
And King became sober for the rest of his life. If this movie is any example of the effects of substance abuse, it should be shown to young people in schools, Parents should make their kids watch it to see what could happen to them.
King’s inexperience led to a dangerous injury to the movie’s director of photography Armando Nannuzzi, who lost his right eye when a lawnmower hit a block of wood causing splinters to injure him. King was sued for $18 million in 1987 but the case was settled out of court.
Over the years, King has said he’s considered directing another movie, this time sober, but often points to it as a reason he has directed since. Sometimes people who work great in one medium don’t exactly excel in other medium. Take Quentin Tarantino when he acts in anything. Yes, he’s a good screen writer and director. But his acting is worse than a bored high schooler having to read Shakespeare in class.
It should be noted King would be competing with himself at the box office as Rob Reiner had directed Stand By Me, based on the novella “The Body” that was released in August of 1986. And that’s considered one of the best King adaptations.
This isn’t the worst King adaptation. There are a lot of bad movies that have come out since. In all honesty, The Mangler is the worst adaptation I’ve seen. People say Graveyard Shift is bad but at least it’s saved by the so bad it’s good overacting of Stephen Macht. I actually thought the adaptation of A Good Marriage was impressive. It wasn’t that great of a movie but it changed the format of movies where women learn their husbands/partners are psychotic killers.
Maximum Overdrive seemed almost forgotten until another adaptation of Trucks was made in 1997. I’ve watched parts of that movie and it’s very bad, but this is a far better adaptation.
So, maybe King was able to do something right.