Attack of the Comet-Possessed Eighteen Wheelers: Maximum Overdrive may be flawed as a film, but it delivers a payload in pure entertainment value.
A little-league baseball team has just won the game. The coach wants to celebrate and buy the team sodas. The soda machine jams, and the coach kneels down. Just then, the machine attacks and spits out cans with the speed of a major league pitcher and hits the coach in the stomach, chest, and head.
Regardless of the fact that soda machines are not equipped to shoot cans (they fall to the slot), it’s a vicious attack. Cans begin firing at the team, and they scurry for cover. For no reason whatsoever, a kid flips on his bike. A steam roller rushes the scene and squashes him with a crunch and a squeal. AC/DC blasts the soundtrack.
This scene is the essence of Maximum Overdrive: an 80s grind-house film with a budget, if there is such a thing.
Much like the scene described above, a lot of Maximum Overdrive is ridiculous, but it’s also a lot of fun. Maybe it’s fun because it’s ridiculous. But does it go too far with trying to establish its tone at times like these? Maybe for some. Even Stephen King admitted to heavy cocaine use while filming, and drugs can give you false confidence in your abilities.
It can also cause you to make your most audacious decisions. How audacious? An M-60 machine gun actually growls in the film. Maybe the soda machine too.
The movie begins, and we are informed that a meteor has passed over the earth, leaving a green haze in our atmosphere that will cause all of earth’s machines to operate on their own. No machine is exempt; no human is safe. It’s quickly established that the machines are sick of working for us and their time has come.
Bridges begin to rise on their own and topple cars, headphones fry brains, electric knives bite people, a bloody lawnmower chases a boy, and an ice cream truck patrols for kiddies. An ATM even gets in on the action by calling Stephen King (in his funniest cameo) an asshole.
After the revolt of the machines has been quickly established, a small convoy of comet-possessed eighteen wheelers (led by a truck with a Green Goblin-like face on its grill) holds our leading man, Billy, played by Emilio Esteves, and his colorful cast of redneck stereotypes hostage in a truck stop out in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention our damsel in distress character who can actually take care of herself this time around (she packs a straight razor).
The trucks circle the station day and night, no rhyme or reason; they just circle. This allows time for bickering from characters, drama, power outages, kills, and a convenient cache of weapons to be found amongst the hostages (I have a feeling these weapons will come in handy later). They even have time to brave the sewer system to retrieve an obnoxious bible salesman, only to find a fellow employee’s kid instead.
An army Jeep of sorts finally shows up with an M-60 machine gun attached. The size of the magazine in the M-60 doesn’t matter, the rounds are endless, and the fact that the M-60 isn’t an electronic device doesn’t matter either; it’s included in the game and possessed, pulling its own trigger and spraying rounds at the station, taking out people who should have ducked by the time they finally get hit.
The Jeep then proceeds to honk its own horn to Morse code, which is translated by the kid they found earlier. It’s from this Jeep that we find out the hostages were being held for the purposes of fueling trucks that will soon be running low on fuel, a common problem with vehicles, possessed or not. Billy suggests the Jeep could perhaps call in a truck that could napalm the place if they don’t comply.
How he comes to this conclusion, or how a Jeep could call a napalm truck, remains a mystery. I just chalk it up to insinuations for the sake of plot and maybe see it as some sort of cheap, horror Transformers ripoff where the bad guys can’t talk due from lack of mouths. And the fact the M-60 doesn’t have ears won’t keep Billy from talking to it either. (Emilio Esteves talking to a machine about gasoline as if it were cocaine might be the oddest moment in the film.)
But outside all the silliness I pointed out, Maximum Overdrive is worth the price of admission.
I doubt I gave too much away. Besides, there isn’t much character development or any big reveals going on here. It’s all about simple survival in a truck stop against machines where the gore is extreme and the laughs are for the sick minded. Did I like it? Of course. Steven King’s audacity and hubris (drug-fueled mind) has no bounds here, and Pat Hingle’s Mr. Hendershot is one of the best redneck performances ever, played for all its worth with a slimeball attitude and truck stop diner sweat. In fact, there isn’t one performance that lacked; the casting was great.
Over the years, my tastes have changed. I’m not the same kid who ventured into that theater and watched this movie back in the day. Writing reviews later in life for something that has already been solidified in your young brain as “awesome” can be tricky. You have to come to terms with the flaws you overlooked as a child. You have to look past what spoke to your younger sensibilities and look at it critically.
Well, I have a rule. I always ask, “What is this movie trying to do, who is it for, and does it pull it off,” without falling below the standards for that particular genre of course.
I think Stephen King pulled it off here for the horror crowd. His disappointment in his movie boggles me. What else was he expecting would come from the material?
You might ask how could someone defend a movie where an army Jeep speaks. If it were Platoon, no, I couldn’t be on board for that, but this is Maximum Overdrive, and I have a feeling that if Stephen King hadn’t made it himself, Maximum Overdrive would have been one of his favorite movies of the 80s.
It’s a film about blood, exhaust, implausibility, laughs, and a B-movie attitude from the era of excess, not to mention an exclusive soundtrack by AC/DC that is just the cherry on top. If this is Stephen King’s Plan 9 From Outer Space as he has claimed, then he made one of the best B-movies ever. Ed Wood can take two steps back.