King's Highway pt. 6: Way Too Damn Much about Maximum Overdrive

This is the theatrical trailer, which is better than the tv one I remember seeing a hundred times in 1986.

But I only ever saw the movie itself on video. My friend Chris brought it over. His grandmother would call him up on Monday and ask him what movies he wanted, and he'd call me and we'd discuss. Then he'd give her the list, and she'd go rent the movies from Victor Video and tape them. The following weekend or whenever we hung out next, we'd have three movies to watch. This was one of them. All we ever wanted to watch was stuff like From Beyond, The Shining, or, Evil Dead 2. 

This was right before the age of video-guards. I'm probably opening my family (not to mention Chris's) to FBI investigation, but yes, folks, there was a time when video and audio terrorists ran amok... where tapes were borrowed and taped, and mix tapes were made.

Quality? Well... different story. But as I recall a different friend saying when I mentioned getting the Dead Kennedys on CD, Just got to have that low-fi punk production digitally mastered, huh? I kind of think the same here, with Maximum Overdrive. Context is everything.

With that said, why is this film so reviled? King himself has never had a kind word to say about it. I've always wondered if that had more to do with bad memories of its production, or if he felt perhaps not out of his element but discovered he'd rather employ his considerable talents back on his home turf. (If that was the case, considering the amount of material he's done in its wake, he should take these detours to cinema more often, if only to unleash the writing-Kraken.)

It's aged unkindly in spots, sure. But the top-grossing films in 1986 - Top Gun, The Golden Child, Star Trek IV, Ferris Bueller's... hell, even Platoon - all have aged unkindly in one aspect or another. Granted, no one would compare Maximum Overdrive to any of those, but its real genre/trope competition is more Police Academy 3: Back in Training or Friday the 13th pt VI, so judge it by that. Or by Night of the Comet, which while not released in 1986, is perhaps its truest mirror. Sit it side by side to any of these, and I'm much more forgiving.

Now that I've talked myself into loving it enough to watch the rest of it...
I thought the story this is based on, "Trucks," didn't need much fleshing out, although I was curious at its end where things would go. Would it go and on? Were humans doomed only to pump gas and replace transistors and tighten screws for a malevolent machine race until they couldn't do it anymore? (This idea was explored with equivalent lunacy in The Matrix sequels. Bring that up the next time someone starts banging on about The Matrix. Actually, take my word on this - bring up Maximum Overdrive, stubbornly, whenever horror films are brought up, and never waver.)

I liked how "Trucks" ended - kind of staring off into a bleak future. I like fiction like that carries an unspoken but urgent message of WE might be screwed, but this is a message from an alternate world... It's not too late to save yourselves. Like the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The film adaptation goes a different route and places the narrative in a bust-out-of-Dodge then survive the 8 days til the comet passes sort of deal. We don't see the end part of that, but it is alluded to in the odd and hilarious coda, with the AC/DC blaring, which, to me, is what separates this flick from the others - I mean, the whole cranking AC/DC intermittently is a sound template for a movie, if you ask me. More films should do this, and with KISS, too. You'll know you've woken up in a world suddenly run by me if this starts to happen everywhere you look.

Anyway, let's not make too much of the trucks-gone-wild movie. Here are my bullet-point observations from my notebook.

- The game room sequence goes for a bit of a blaxpolitation feel, but it comes across a bit awkwardly. Perhaps even offensively. Par for the 80s course, alas. (I'm alone in this, but I levy the same charge at Tarantino. Future generations will agree with me here.) But, that aside, that Star Castle game looks so awesome, doesn't it? What I wouldn't give...

- 16 minutes in: Jack Chick tracts??! Seriously? Awesome.

- Around 44 minutes in, we see a truck full of toilet paper explode. The camera pans over a field of burning rolls. I don't know... a cry for help? A wry smirk? A fun image? What are we to make of the gratuitous destruction in general? 

- Elsewhere, the soda machine, the ice cream machine: I mean, in 2012, we know high fructose corn syrup is trying to kill us; isn't the soda machine a bit of a wink-wink from the past? (Probably not, but it is kind of funny.)

- I always get such a kick when movies reference the title of the film in the dialogue. "At least that's where I was going before all the machines kicked into Maximum Overdrive..." If I ever write a script - which is one of those things that sounds sometimes like "If I ever perform brain surgery" - I will do this at least once a half hour. Until someone edits those lines out of the movie.

- I'm not a huge fan of Pat Hingle. I think I bear him (and Tim Burton) a lifelong grudge for his being cast as Commissioner Gordon.

Yeardley Smith from The Simpsons provides the girl-screaming-at-everything part.
- Gratuitous explosions and demolition and car smash-ups of the slow-motion variety et. al are a fun hallmark of 70s and 80s films. No wonder why CGI is so goddamn cost-effective. The production design of something like this (or a more polished production like Midnight Run) to something nowadays like Sucker Punch is worth considering. Anyway, back to the 80s - no montage here, but the end credits play out to "You Shook Me All Night Long," which is a total (and fist-pumpingly appreciated) 80s move.

- 'Hell's Bells' during the endless gas pump made me think about Peak Oil and Michael Ruppert.

- I don't quite get why the rocket launchers and guns don't gain sentience if things like the electric-cutting-knife do, but hey! LOOK IT'S BARNEY FROM THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!

I really regret the lack of commentary track. I had to buy this from Amazon as no Netflix disc available. $.99, by the way! That's only one dollar more than what I paid watching my friend Chris's grandma's copy back in 1986, which was, of course, free. Not to be morbid, but this was the 80s and she was ancient, then... I wonder if she has passed, which seems likely. If so, what did her relatives made of the trunk-full of VCR tapes? Did my friend Chris awkwardly shuffle between his feet? I picture them looking them all over and puzzling over the three titles scrawled in faded blue ink on the text strip along the side. Reading them aloud. Every tape with two or three schlocky horror films. Every word a mystery...)

Anyway, re: the commentary, given King's account of his state of mind alluded to in On Writing, during the time-frame of production, I imagine it might bring up some bad memories, so too bad. I imagine a King-family commentary track might get heated in spots. Good thing people from Maine have (usually - I'll die inside when they start doing "Maine Shore" or "New Hampshire Hillbillies" shows) more common sense than airing their dirty laundry for public consumption.

Air your linens in your backyard, not the media, is the lesson of Maximum Overdrive. RIGHT? RIGHT? Oh...

If I were an eccentric gazillionaire, I'd offer obscene amounts of money to anyone willing to make a sequel that details how the gang's weathers the rest of the storm. Maybe I'd sub in KISS for AC/DC. Perhaps someone out there in blog-land will read these words and plant a flag on this golden shore.


  1. Apologies for typos/ errors in tense. Oh, I see them. Ain't no percentage in fixing. #Famous Last Words

  2. I've long wanted to see a serial-killer movie that opened with a montage of brutal killings set to "God of Thunder."

    Not sure what that says about me as a person...

    On the subject of "Maximum Overdrive," all I can say is that while it is an undeniably terrible movie, it's one I could happily sit down and enjoy the hell out of at almost any time. I think it'd be awesome if there was a remake and Joe Hill directed it. Lulz aplenty would ensue.