Have you ever been to a wedding with that weird uncle, the one who arrives drunk and still proceeds to drain the open bar? The one whose rambling, non sequitur toast to the cringing couple is peppered with jokes about STD tests and Tijuana donkey shows? The one who sloppily hits on all the bridesmaids half his age? The one whose spastic, interpretive dance to “Brick House” ends with him crashing head-first into the wedding cake? He turns what is supposed to be a magical event into an embarrassing disaster, yet it’s probably the most fun you’ve ever had at one of those things. Well, in 1986, Stephen King was that uncle, and the wedding was Maximum Overdrive.
The plot is a ridiculous one. As the Earth is bathed in a florescent green haze of a passing comet’s tail, the machines’ revolt against their human oppressors begins. Vending machines, arcade games, electric knives, even some things that aren’t technically machines, all begin slaughtering people in simultaneously comical and horrifying ways. Soon, a ragtag band of survivors, including Bill the ex-con (Emilio Estevez), Brett the wily hitchhiker (Laura Harrington), Connie the shrill newlywed (Yeardley Smith ), Deke the smart kid (Holter Graham), and Hendershot the asshole boss (Pat Hingle), hold up in a backwater pit stop, besieged by a circling convoy of pissed off trucks. Will humanity overcome these industrial assassins of their own making, or will the machines sweep the planet clean?
It seemed like a sure fire winner. Fed up with what he perceived as lacklustre film adaptations like The Shining, Stephen King figured, who better to bring his vision to the screen than himself? Armed with an expanded script based on his short story Trucks, a cast of fresh-faced stars and old pros, a killer soundtrack by AC/DC, bundles of cash and even bigger bundles of cocaine, what could possibly go wrong? Everything, it turns out, and in the best possible way. The movie that crashed headlong into the summer of ’86 was a raging, out of control tire-fire, which is precisely why it is so much goddamn fun.
For a movie helmed by such a detailed and loving writer, Maximum Overdrive has a gleeful contempt for the rules. Any rules. The movie’s plot holes are bigger than the Mach trucks trying to run everyone into the ground. For instance, after all the world’s machines turn homicidal, newlyweds Connie and Curt must outrun a vengeful semi…in their car, which continues to function normally. The big question is not why the machines turned against us, but how? If it’s by alien remote control, as postulated by Bill, how do they move the machines with no motors? Is it magic, ghost possession, widespread Christine-ification? You try to explain how trucks can hear people, or better yet, why a drive-thru menu speaker starts robotically announcing “Humans here!” The brilliance of Maximum Overdrive is that it hits you with so much concentrated nonsense that it is too exhausting to even try to understand. The best advice I can give you is to just let go and let it flow over you. Like Zen, but for horseshit.
Another thing that is so interesting is the off-kilter tone. The movie tells you upfront it’s going to be goofy fun with King himself staring into the POV of a mischievous ATM and shouting, “Come over here, honey buns, this machine just called me an asshole.” Soon, though, the laughs slam directly into more grizzly images. Ha ha, a wonky drawbridge is showering cars with watermelons. Oh, a woman just smashed head-first through the windshield. Ha ha, that Coke machine just launched a can into that guy’s crotch! Oh, then it punched a bloody hole in his skull. All of this gives the movie a kind of nervous tension. The moment that completely shreds the safety net is when one of Deke’s buddies falls off his bike while fleeing a little league baseball game and a steam roller suddenly bursts through a fence and very clearly squashes him flat. Boom, child murder, in your face! All bets are off.
As previously mentioned, our hero Bill theorizes that the mayhem is all part of an alien scheme to brush humans off an otherwise ideal planet. If so, they might be trying to do us a favor, because they seem focused on wiping out only the stupidest portion of humanity. Most deaths in the movie could have been avoided with just a modicum of common sense. The clearest example is when Deke, the smartest character thus far in the story, peddles his bike through an absurd montage of suburban carnage where all the victims had to have at least partially assisted in their own deaths. There’s the guy who chainsawed his head off, a dude killed by his Walkman(?), a dog with a RC car jammed down its throat (??), and a woman strangled by her hair dryer (?!?!?). As Deke leisurely peddles away from a pursing lawnmower, I can only imagine the machine was surprised the kid didn’t lie down and let it run over his head. I guess he wasn’t from that neighborhood.
Eventually, all of the movie’s halfway reasonable humans wind up at the besieged Dixie Boy, because where else would you go to avoid homicidal trucks other than a truck stop? Bill becomes the defacto leader, primarily because he is both smart enough to keep himself alive and brave enough to help the other survivors do likewise. This is Esteves in his absolute prime, mixing a pinch of his Repo Man, straight-faced punk disdain with a little Bratpack swagger. Some of his best blows are traded not with the machines, but with Pat Hingle’s gratuitously country-fried boss, Hendershot. Hingle is given free rein to chew the scenery, creating one of the all time top slimeball bosses. Hendershot is so myopic he assumes his abused employees would be more afraid of being fired than of all the machines suddenly gaining murderous sentience. There is no need to ask why he has an arsenal of military weapons hidden in the basement, because he’s exactly the kind of nutball who would. However, I do have to question his tendency to derogatorily call everyone “bubba” when we later find out Bubba is his actual first name. Who does that?
The supporting cast is surprisingly solid, as well. Laura Harrington (who, despite appearances, is not Jami Gertz) does a fine job as the street-wise, straight-razor packing love interest, Brett. She and Estevez share a great, low key delinquent chemistry that makes it believable they would click together in such a dire situation. The Maximum Overdrive maxim of things that should not work at all, yet do, shines with Yeardley Smith’s constantly complaining new bride Connie and her clueless husband Curt (John Short). By all rights we should want them to be snuffed out as soon as possible, but the lunkheads kind of grown on you. Curt’s goofball charm allows Bill to loosen his rebel stoicism for a bit and have a few laughs. And it’s always fun to hear Lisa Simpson call someone a goddamn asshole.
While the rest of the cast are red shirts waiting for the chance to stupidly get themselves killed, humanity doesn’t solely take all the Darwin Awards. In the machine revolution, trucks are the idiot foot soldiers — or wheel soldiers, I suppose. Despite their menacing size, the brutes only score a few on-screen kills, and most of their time is spent angrily circling the Dixie Boy. They do have a clever moment when they bring in a Morse code beeping buggy sporting a machine gun on a stick to bully the humans into refuelling the trucks, allowing them to angrily circle the Dixie Boy well into the night. Maybe their chief strategist was a VCR playing The Road Warrior. In any event, their biggest oversight was utilizing so many tankers full of explosive liquids when hunting people armed with a rocket launcher.