Written by: Christopher Murray
Director: Stephen King
Stars: Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington
I don’t need to tell you that Stephen King has written dozens of popular novels and short stories. Many of these tales have fluidly translated to the silver screen and been adopted into the canon of classic horror. Maximum Overdrive, his directorial debut, is not one of those films. Still, it maintains status as a cult favorite. Even most fanboys would agree it’s more b-movie laugh-out-loud than scary. This year, the movie turned thirty. So, why do people keep pressing play after all this time? The premise is ridiculous, but the characters remind us of our own flawed humanity and our innate desire to be lead. Most of all, it does what all great movies should– entertain.
For the uninitiated, Maximum Overdrive is a comedic horror film that revolves around the idea of machines abruptly coming to life and declaring war on humanity. Most of the action focus around the Dixie Boy truck stop and its inhabitants. The viewer meets a cast of sleazy, selfish characters as they try to stave off death until the earth escapes the tail of a comet and the machines can no longer control themselves. I know it doesn’t make much sense. It was the 80s, everyone was coked out of their minds. Just go with it.
The film has not aged particularly well, but it still manages to connect with audiences. There are some decent kills, but some of the most cringe-worthy scenes involve outdated cultural attitudes. For example, several truckers mock a waitress for her “stupidity” after an electric carver comes alive and nearly severs her ulnar artery. In an earlier scene, a traveling bible salesman makes unwanted advances on a hitchhiker. Yikes.
It doesn’t stop there. The manager of the Dixie Boy actually seems annoyed by the dead bodies piling up. He has his help drag them down to the basement we later find out just so happens to be filled with military grade weapons. The staggering lack of humanity shown makes you question whether the machines are right to execute us. It’s when a little leaguer takes a sub-machine gun to a drive thru microphone that you’re affirmed and cheer, “We made you and we can destroy you, you bastards!”
King refers to this effort as a “moronic movie.” He’s probably being a little too hard on himself. Maximum Overdrive is a cultural snapshot of America in the 1980’s. There are images that conjure up the arms race, oil shortages, and our increasing dependence on new technologies. America was looking for a hero to stand up and challenge our increasingly fatalist outlook. Sometimes we need to be comforted by bravado to face our anxieties.
There aren’t many movies that do escapism better. If you think about it too much, you can get caught up in the details. There are plenty of awkward and downright stupid moments. If you can suspend your criticisms, it’s a very rewarding movie. Share the fun with your friends and have a movie night to honor this cult classic. Don’t forget to turn up the volume to enjoy the badass AC/DC original soundtrack.