In the name of fun, I occasionally review a movie I’ve seen a ton of times and therefore just flat out love.
So I thought why not start with the movie that officially got me into horror films?
Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive will forever hold a special place in my heart. Why? Other than 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street that I watched when I was 10, it was the first horror movie I’d ever enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror masterpiece! But it traumatized 10 year old me in 1994 and it wasn’t until a year later, when I was 11, that I happened upon Maximum Overdrive on late-night cable TV. That was when I actually started liking horror movies.
In 1995 there was a late-night Saturday show called Monstervision that aired on TNT. Staying up way later than I should have been one night, I was flipping through the channels and happened upon TNT, right as an unfortunate little league baseball team was being massacred by a soda machine gone crazy and a driverless steam-roller mowing kids down on the baseball field. I had no idea what I was watching. But I was hooked immediately because it was equally horrifying and comically ridiculous, and I just simply couldn’t look away. A short commercial break later, we returned to the movie where an icon popped up in the bottom corner of the screen and informed me that I was watching Maximum Overdrive.
As the show continued, host Joe Bob Briggs (John Bloom) had little interludes/skits and I found out more information about the movie including the biggest shocker of all: it was Stephen King related! Having only recently gotten into being a fan of his, I had no idea this movie was based on one of his stories. Color me further shocked when I discovered it wasn’t just based on one of his stories, but that he adapted it himself for the screen and he directed it. To this day it remains the only movie he ever directed! Learning all of that blew my 11 year old mind. My favorite author took one of his own stories and turned it into a fantastically bad horror movie? This is awesome!
Monstervision had me hooked from then on and I stayed up super late every weekend to catch all the bad horror and sci-fi movies (that are actually still pretty good), and at one point I even wrote a fan letter (this was 1995: there was no internet like there is now, so it was an actual handwritten letter that I mailed in to the show in a self-addressed stamped envelope) One night, out of the blue, Joe Bob Briggs read my letter on air! That also blew my mind! I was (not all all) famous!
Given how much 11 year old me ended up loving Maximum Overdrive, I made it my mission to start watching as many horror movies as possible. I simply could not get enough. I practically lived at Haycraft’s Video the next couple years, pouring over everything in their horror room – and the rest of their store. I was there so often that I was ultimately offered a job at the ripe old age of 13. I was so young I had to work for cash because I didn’t qualify for a work permit, but it was awesome. And it all happened thanks to Maximum Overdrive (in a weird, roundabout way)!
As for the movie, machines come alive and start attacking and killing humans. Lawnmowers, vending machines, hair dryers, electric knives, videogames, vehicles…you name it. Initial reports liken the phenomenon to a passing meteor (which is essentially a rip-off of Night of the Living Dead, given that radiation from a passing asteroid causes the dead to return to life and crave human flesh in that movie). It is later revealed that there was a UFO hiding behind the meteor, effectively “controlling” things in an effort to take over the planet.
When things go haywire, a group of unlucky folk get trapped at a truck stop, where they are quickly taken out by various machines and rogue semi-trucks. They slowly fight back and form a plan to escape.
For as simple of a story as it is (machines come to life and kill people) it’s actually quite convoluted in that a lot of it straight up doesn’t make sense. Apparently only semi-trucks come to life, no regular car tries to take anyone down or harm anyone. Other “vehicles” do; dump trucks, lawnmowers, steamrollers, airplanes, and military machine-gun-toting golf cart type vehicles…but no cars. This is never explained, nor capitalized on as there are plenty of cars around the truck stop that could be made into escape vehicles, given that they are apparently harmless and still working like normal. Also, machine guns aren’t actual machines. There are no engines in them or motor-powered parts or anything. There’s no way one would come to life and start shooting people but hey, it’s a movie!
Machines also control the power grid, and can turn the power on and off at will, so why not just leave it off and make things that much more difficult for the humans trying to survive? Some of the semi-trucks can also “hear”, as humans “talk” to them and get responses (for example, the star of the film – Emilio Estevez – explains to the semi that is the most sentient and, therefore, in charge, that they can’t pump gas without power. The semi understands him, and the power then comes back on).
Sound ridiculous? It is! And, to be quite frank: it’s supposed to be! This movie could never be made seriously, as it would never be taken seriously by anyone. It is a ridiculous premise and lives up to that on screen tenfold.
The acting is over-the-top by everyone (most especially by Wanda the Waitress who has a mental breakdown and runs outside screaming “YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO US, WE MADE YOU!” at the trucks, in what is the most over-the-top-bad acting performance I’ve ever seen in my life). It features not only Estevez in one of his first “big” roles but also Pat Hingle (who went on to play Commissioner Gordon in the first 4 Batman movies). Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson and other Simpsons characters) appears as one of the most annoying characters to ever be put on screen, and Giancarlo Esposito (super-bad guy Gus Fring from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) is one of the first victims of the film when he gets electrocuted by a videogame. There is also a cameo by Donald Trump’s first wife Marla Maples, as a girl trapped in a car with her boyfriend during the opening scene when a drawbridge goes nuts.
The soundtrack is done entirely by AC/DC (and I love it so much I still own the CD) who were convinced to do the movie because King is such a fan that he met them personally just to talk them into it. Speaking of King, he opens the movie as a man who gets offended when an ATM comes to life and calls him a curse word.
It’s all stupid and great!
King himself has admitted that he was “coked out of his mind” when making the movie, and the knowledge of learning that fact really just amplifies my love for it even more. Given how wild and wonderfully cheesy the movie is, I cannot picture it any other way. Had King been sober while making it…there’s just no way it would have turned out as badly good as it did. As for it being his lone directorial credit, King was once asked in an interview why he never directed a second film, with his answer being “Watch Maximum Overdrive and you’ll know why.”
Stephen King (and others involved in the film, such as Yeardley Smith) may be embarrassed or ashamed of this movie but I have always loved it, and it remains “so bad it’s good” every time I re-watch it.
If you’re in the mood for some pure 80’s cinematic cheese, that isn’t full horror, but a mix of sci-fi and action as well, I highly recommend it.
Just make sure you avoid the 1997 made-for-TV remake called Trucks (the actual name of King’s short story from his book Night Shift). That one isn’t “so bad it’s good”, just “so bad it’s bad.”
Maximum Overdrive runs 1 hour 38 minutes and is Rated R for language and horror violence/gore.