Stephen King Week: Maximum Overdrive (1986) - Reviewed

Stephen King's only directorial effort, an adaptation of one of his short stories, was formed in a cocaine fueled storm of destructive creativity. Critically maligned upon release, Maximum Overdrive was lauded as one of the worst films of the year and possibly the decade. In the years since its tragic release, the film has garnered a cult following and has been reassessed as a piece of glorious trash cinema. Unflinchingly violent visuals, taught survival horror social dynamics, and deliciously campy dialogue are but some of the gloriously 80's gems that await a viewer patient enough to experience King's sweaty mattress offering of science fiction grindhouse. 

A strange comet passes Earth, enveloping the planet in its neon green tail that imbues machines with murderous sentience. A ragtag group of patrons at a truck stop are forced to fight for their lives as deadly vehicles lay siege to their makeshift sanctuary. King has stated that he was in the grips of drug addiction while making the film and remembers very little of it. He adapted the screenplay from his short story Trucks, a bleaker apocalyptic imagining of technology rebelling against its creators. This is the first glint of the value hidden with the picture. It has entirely too much fun with itself and that is the central component of its tacky charm. Borrowing heavily from Night of the Living Dead, Maximum Overdrive is more about the humans than the creatures or creations that are assaulting them. Emilio Estevez stars as Bill, the blue-collar hero, while his love interest is played by Laura Harrington in a refreshingly empowered performance. Their chemistry, while awkwardly forced, is still undeniable and unexpectedly sexy, even underneath the atrocious dialogue. 

The true star of the film is the man-made army of devices and vehicles that plague humanity. The introductory act showcases some truly shocking kill sequences and audacious visual compositions that are a tarnished glimmer of King's possible directorial talent. The killing of a child on screen was sacrosanct at the time and King's decision to show a little league player being run over by a steam roller indicated a sense of bravado that sadly doesn't hold up for the duration. Still, the entire first act is a masterful work of pitch black satire, complete with annoyingly high-pitched theme music for the malevolent goblin-faced eighteen-wheeler that leads the machines in their vicious rapine.

ACDC's soundtrack is legendary, fusing King's high-octane rhythm with some hard hitting, instantly classic songs that remain fan favorites to this day. Armando Nannuzzi's cinematography is perhaps the film's biggest saving grace. Deliberate slow pans and solid compositions capture the picaresque heart of Maximum Overdrive perfectly. In the height of the cold war, in a time where apocalyptic scenarios were common place, King's vision is a beer breathed French kiss, taking a random assortment of American stereotypes and allowing them to persevere with humor and an egregious number of illegal firearms conveniently cached on the premises. The end result is an obnoxiously charming cult powerhouse that, despite the unrelenting violence and eyerolling dialogue throughout, manages to win over the viewer through the sheer insanity of its existence. 

OMG, Nannuzzi lost an eye!!

Killer machines, existential swan song delivering waitresses, vicious kill sequences, and King's patented contempt for charlatans and gun aficionados awaits anyone who is willing to overlook Maximum Overdrive's two golden raspberry nominations. What the brave will find is a fun romp through familiar territory made memorable by the undeniable fact that its creator was out of his damned mind for the duration of its production.

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-Kyle Jonathan