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Killer Car Movies: “Maximum Overdrive” (1986)

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Maximum Overdrive
Hey, you got your Stephen King in my killer car movie!
Photo: Pxfuel via CC

Over the course of October, The News Wheel has been celebrating the weird and wonderful world of killer car movies. As we’ve seen, these films have run the gamut between high art and cheesy fun, and from obscurity to well-known classics. As Halloween draws nearer, it’s time we discussed a film that somehow exists in all of these categories at once. A film at once spectacular and silly, and that, while unknown at large, is beloved by those who’ve sought it out. It’s time, at last, to talk about Maximum Overdrive.

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The origins and story of “Maximum Overdrive”

When talking about this insane killer-machine flick, it’s impossible to gloss over the unprecedented story behind its creation. Remember Christine, the movie about a teenager who forms an unhealthy relationship with his self-repairing vintage car? That film was based on a story penned by modern horror literature’s most famous voice: Stephen King. As any King aficionado knows, there are plenty of cinematic adaptations of the author’s work out there. Unfortunately, very few of these films are held in high regard by King himself. The best example of this is undoubtedly Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining; despite its beloved status, King despised it.

By the mid-1980s, King was at his wit’s end. Tired of seeing his films not adapted to his liking, he decided to cut out the middleman and direct the next adaption himself. Not only that, he wrote the screenplay and gave himself an acting role.

The tale King chose to adapt was the short story Trucks, a strange, pulpy saga of machines turned murderers. In the story and resulting film, retitled to Maximum Overdrive, a comet passes by Earth, and its energy causes machines and electronics on the planet to go haywire. Soon, the technology of mankind is in full revolt. Arcade machines electrocute a thief, an ATM insults a cameoing Stephen King, and an army of trucks come to life and start killing people. A group of survivors under siege in a truck stop must use their wits to outsmart and escape the viscous vehicles.

Why it’s scary

This’ll be easy: it’s not scary. Not even a little bit. But what the film lacks in legitimate scares is more than made up for by its fun factor. Maximum Overdrive is pure insanity from start to finish. No several-sentence plot synopsis can do justice to the experience of watching this craziness unfold. This is a film in which people are gruesomely mauled by sentient trucks, and in which an 8-year-old is pancaked by a steamroller. Things blow up, rocket launchers are fired, AC/DC music blasts in the background, and, as previously mentioned, Stephen King gets cussed out by an ATM. How one movie can contain all of these things and still be relatively coherent, I’m not sure.

But that’s the fun part. If you go into this movie with even a single neuron firing at full speed, you’re doing yourself a disservice. By some miracle, the film’s dumbness combines with its sincerity to create a bizarre form of high art. Like the best of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, Maximum Overdrive’s failure to achieve competency results in a darn good time for all watching.

Ironically, Stephen King’s attempt to eliminate bad adaptations of his work by making the film himself had the opposite effect. His embarrassment over the movie has been well documented; when asked why he hasn’t directed a film since, this was his answer: “Just watch Maximum Overdrive.”

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Regardless of King’s opinion, Maximum Overdrive has developed a strong cult following since its 1986 release. If you’ve never gotten the chance to watch this awesomely insane movie, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Sit back, turn off your brain, and let the killer-car mayhem begin.