SHOCK kicks off 2016 with a look at Stephen King’s 30 year old trash classic MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE.
As we roar into the new year, its always vital as fans of cinema to reflect on history and its influence on the present and imagine its impact on the future. And when it comes to terror, its very clear that it takes ten, sometimes twenty years for a genre movie to command proper respect. You need to remove it from the zeitgeist. You need to unshackle it from any and all expectations, commercially or critically. You have to rediscover it and, as horror culture is one that runs parallel to rock n roll and is really a rebel sub-culture, you have to defy those who tell you a picture is bad and see it preferably alone and make it yours.
Its taken Stephen Kings MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE thirty years to get any sort of authentic respect and I dont even think its quite there yet. Thing is, Ive loved it since the first time I saw it and, as it features a full soundtrack by iconic Aussie rockers AC/DC, heard it. Leonard Maltin gave it a BOMB rating and virtually every other critic of the period saddled it with the same sort of sneering disdain.
To be an 11 year old boy in 1986 and stand up and say FUCK YOU! I LOVE MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE! took courage. I ran the risk of spinning into the roll of cinematic social outcast, shunned by my peers and ridiculed by my pals.
But Ive never really been one to give a gear what anyone else thinks about me so what the hell.
MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is a hubcap headed, gas spitting 1986 sci-fi action trash classic; the first and – if you believe his publicly uttered promise since then only film to be directed by one of the most influential and Important fantasy/horror fiction writers in history. The film was indeed one of the worst reviewed studio pictures of its time and it has since been either ignored, reviled or smarmily dismissed. And while the diesel powered shocker is indeed nowhere near a decent creeper and is a pretty odd choice for one of the major forces of literary fear to choose as his maiden film voyage, I think its a fascinating example of the working class hero King aesthetic in full, perversely amplified effect and truly believe that theres more going on in the picture than perhaps even its director understood.
And at the very least, the movies chief antagonist is a homicidal, toy tugging, 70s semi-truck with the grinning image of the goddamned Green Goblin on it. The real deal Marvel comics sculpted, Spider-Man battling Green Goblin!
As a phantom comet circles the earth, every machine on the face of the planet begins to snap into consciousness and revolt violently against their human makers and masters. Steamrollers level little leaguers, pop machines fire off soda cans into skulls like bullets, electric steak knives hunger for blood, junkyard wrecks scream to life and monstrous rigs mow down men and women alike. As the world goes entertainingly mad, a ragtag band of shell shocked survivors congregate at the Dixie Boy truck stop where they unplug, hole up and try to evade the increasingly angry assemblage of evil automobiles.
MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is based on Kings truly eerie early period short story Trucks which most famously appeared in his bestselling 1978 collection Night Shift. I remember sifting through my dads paperback when I was 7, you know, the one with the eyeball riddled bandaged hand on the cover (an image culled from the story I Am The Doorway) and, while not as devastating as the Graveyard Shift, Grey Matter Or One For The Road tales, Trucks still got me good, especially the final, ominous airplane-gazing line. So its a real head scratcher why the universally adored author opted to turn that shivery tale into a testosterone fuelled redneck action picture instead of a straight up genre piece. Many critics in 1986 were asking the same question and needless to say, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE was chewed up and spat out like so many Truckasaurus hors douvres. Even Dino De Laurentiis widow (Dino produced and distributed the film, the same year he gave the world BLUE VELVET), producer Martha De Laurentiis, who also had a hand in making the movie, rolled her eyes when I met her at a party and poked her for details about it.
And while much of the maligning is merited, I cant dismiss the film as flat out bad. It has far too much personality for that. Because no matter what your take on this trashy classic, if you know Kings universe youll recognize that the people that populate MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE are vintage King creations. We have our reluctant hero, the recently paroled short order truck stop cook (here played by a scrappy Emilio Estevez) whos just trying to live a square life. Theres his fat, greasy, abusive boss (Pat Hingle) who exploits him and threatens to send him packing back to prison if he gets out of line. The spunky female hitchhiker (Laura Harrington) whos both sexy and razor sharp under pressure. And theres that cloistered King small town aesthetic, like Norman Rockwell by way of Alfred Hitchcock, that permeates almost every inch of his body of scribblings.
And then theres the trucks.
King would later expand the ideas explored in Trucks and shrink their scope in CHRISTINE, itself adapted for the screen by John Carpenter in 1983. When it came time to turn Trucks into MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, King exploited the visual sting of seeing mighty machines marauding and murdering with nary a driver in sight to well, maximum, effect. From the opening bridge massacre sequence, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is a full out orgy of smashed windshields, crunching metal, spinning wheels, blaring horns and splattery human remains. He really went for it and its grand fun to see chrome crushing people ad nauseum, all cut to the endless strains of AC/DC.
The beloved Aussie hard rockers were a favorite of Kings and he commissioned them to both write the blaring score for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and lend some of their back catalog classics to the fold as well and man alive, does their evil brand of trucker metal jack this picture up, up, up!
Seeing the Green Goblin faced semi roaring down the streets during the opening credits while the tune Who Made Who pounds away in the background is damn near poetic.
Now, theres a really cool guy I know named Tim Shockey, a former video store owner and movie memorabilia collector who found the Goblin head, burned to crisp in a dump (spoiler: the truck gets blowed up but good for reals in the movies fiery climax). He bought those remains and spent the next 20 years restoring it. As an ardent OVERDRIVE fan, I tracked the man down and brought him to a Canadian film convention with the head a few years ago, this after rolling out a huge story about the process of restoring the head in the pages of FANGORIA magazine, which I was Editor of at the time.
The head is a glorious, glorious thing. Heres the proof:
You can find Tim and his vintage head HERE.
But I digress
MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is not an art film. Its not meant to be taken seriously. Its not even a horror film really. But King has claimed he wanted to make a junk food movie of the highest order and baby, he succeeded smashingly, maybe in part because he was, by his own admission in a state of coked-out oblivion. 30 years later, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE still has the same brutal, trashy, primal, violent power that pulses away in the background of all of the authors works.And even if King fails to make good on the “scaring the hell out of you” promise he vows in the trailer (see below), his film is loud, rough, funny, silly, obnoxious and just plain powerful white trash terror at its redneck, working class best.