When a movie kicks off with an ATM machine telling the director he’s an asshole, that‘s a dangerous statement to make. This is especially true if the first time director in question is coked out of his mind and promised in the trailer to “scare the hell out of you”. This is doubly true if you’re Stephen King and after famously pooh poohing Stanley Kubrick’s vision of The Shining, you also say in the trailer, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” On Dino De Laurentiis dime, the King of Horror went to Wilmington, North Carolina to make good on his promise. There he brought to the screen his short story “Trucks” in the form of Maximum Overdrive, a movie that has been reviled and derided over the years. While it undoubtedly caused many in the audience (and in the production for that matter) to agree with the ATM machine on the director’s character, today I am happy to be talking about Maximum Overdrive in this second installment of The King of Wilmington.
As a strange comet envelops the Earth’s skies with a greenish haze, machines everywhere decide they’re done doing what we tell them too. For the patrons and employees of The Dixie Boy truck stop that means dealing with rogue electric knives in the diner, impertinent gas pumps, and worst yet runaway 18 wheelers. Parolee Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez) works as the short order cook at the diner, but when the machines start to rebel, Bill is the only one brave enough to fight back. Despite the protestations of his boss, the surly Mr. Hendershot (Pat Hingle), Bill inspires the truck stop staff, newlyweds Connie (Yeardley Smith) and Carl (John Short), and hitchhiker (Laura Harrington) to band together armed with Mr. Hendershot’s private cache of weapons to fight back against the mechanical menace.
When Mr. King made his promise in the Maximum Overdrive trailer, people expected the author to remain faithful to his work and present something dark and moody. What people did not expect was a film that verged on high camp chock full of b-movie flourishes, sight gags, and inconsistent logic. The later is of course what they got, but the twenty five years since the release of Overdrivehave disconnected the film from King’s promises. This allows Maximum Overdrive to be enjoyed as what it is, a silly retelling of Night of the Living Dead which recasts trucks for zombies and the farmhouse survivors as patrons of The Dixie Boy. While the film features flashes of King, Overdrive belongs on your shelf nestled right between Troll 2 and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and in my book that’s a pretty damn nice place to be.
In general King acquits himself as a director fairly well capturing some well constructed shots, but King has even stated that he was so coked out of his mind that he doesn’t recall making the film, much of the credit should go to Italian cinematographer Armondo Nannuzzi (La Cage Aux Folles, Frankenstein Unbound). It was not like Nannuzzi walked away from the project unscathed. During a sequence involving a killer lawnmower, splinters shot everywhere including (in a Fulci-esque twist) directly into the eye of the cinematographer. He would later sue Stephen King for 18 million dollars, but the case was settled out of court. This was only one of two major accidents on the set. The other, which happened during the stunt involving the flipped over ice cream truck, fortunately injured no one.
Thankfully not adding insult to injuries, the majority of the actors in the film really sell the material. Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club, Repo Man) definitely got the memo about what kind of film this is. If there’s any question about that, just check out the scene where a truck pushes him across the parking lot. Emilio takes it so far over the top it comes back around (and makes Martin glad he didn’t take the Sheen name). Also on the same page was legendary actor Pat Hingle who hams it up as “the biggest fuckhead” that Estevez’s character has ever met, Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson) as a screaming banshee of a newlywed, and Ellen McElduff (OZ, Homicide: Life on the Street) as the freaked out waitress. McElduff was a real highlight every time she would yell at the sky, “You can’t do this! We made you!” regardless of the fact that the only thing her character had a hand in constructing was a breakfast platter. The only actor who really missed the mark was Laura Harrington as the love interest. Not only was her acting bad, there was no chemistry at all between her and Estevez to sell their sudden, intense relationship.
Now of course this feature is all about the Stephen King films made in and around Wilmington, North Carolina, and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk some about the effect this film had on the area. While many locals were cast as extras in the opening bridge scene, many locals were also confused when the full size Dixie Boy opened up outside of town. Both locals and truckers tried to stop in on the set before a sign was erected letting everyone know it was only a set. After filming, the truck stop was bought by local investors who opened it for real, but after a few years they went under. I understand some of the Dixie Boy signing is still in existence. It also brought some special visitors into the area. Not only did King and crew descend on Wilmington, but he brought with him AC/DC who he tapped to do the soundtrack for the film. If you look very closely in the opening scene where the bridge raises, you can barely make out the Aussie rockers on a boat that passes under the bridge.
Maximum Overdrive has a reputation for being a film that’s not even “so bad it’s good”, but rather just bad. I think this reputation probably comes from a mixture of King’s own dismissals of the film and the rabid disappointment of his fans who expected the ultimate Stephen King film. For the rest of us who just like good old fashioned cheesy entertainment, Overdrive is a win all around. Even as the film sags in the middle with long, pointless expository passages, it redeems itself with trucks blowing up, military vehicles who speak Morse code, and trucks who bully Martin Sheen’s kid. So if you haven’t seen Maximum Overdrive for a while, I definitely encourage you to check it out. If you’ve never seen it and you love campy, silly horror/sci-fi fun, then invite your friends over and kick back. For those about to watch Maximum Overdrive, I salute you!
I’ll be back next Monday with the next chapter in The King of Wilmington when I cover the Wheelchair/werewolf film Silver Bullet.