Maximum Overdrive (1986) a (very) belated review

Found this under the IMDB entry for the film:

When asked why he hasn’t directed a movie since Maximum Overdrive, horror writer Stephen King responded “Just watch Maximum Overdrive.”

I first saw the film when it reached the home video market some time after a weak theatrical outing.  I recall when the film was first released the critics were really savage toward it, one even stating something along the lines of “Stephen King is a master of horror.  So how did he do in his directorial debut?  Horribly.”

Nonetheless, being a fan of the “machines gone homicidal” sub-genre of horror (My favorite of which is Steven Spielberg’s first big splash, the film Duel), I had to give it a look.

At the time I did…and I found it to be a pretty weak film.  Since sometime in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s I haven’t seen it again.  Until yesterday.

So…what do I think of it now?

Well, let’s face it, Maximum Overdrive isn’t a very good film.  But I have to admit it isn’t the complete wreck that I felt it was when I first viewed it.  In fact, when viewed in its proper (cheesy) light, there is some fun to be had…

Based on the very downbeat King short story “Trucks”, Maximum Overdrive involves Earth coming into the tail of a comet whose radioactivity causes all manner of machines to come to homicidal life.  Almost immediately there is a big glitch here, as a pair of characters, the newly married couple (which includes the voice of Lisa Simpson, actress Yeardley Smith), manage to drive their car for quite a while after all the machines have supposedly come to life.

After a (somewhat) gory opening where we witness the end of the world, we settle upon the patrons of the Dixie Boy truck stop (Included among this group is our protagonist, Bill Robinson, played by Emilio Estevez).  The patrons and staff of the truck stop quickly find that they’ve been surrounded by the homicidal trucks and are forced to deal with them and, eventually, escape.

And that’s pretty much all there is to the story.  It should become pretty clear pretty quickly that Maximum Overdrive lies in the genre of “siege” films.  The trucks outside could easily be George Romero’s zombies or Indians surrounding a fort or any other number of scenarios.  Alas, when one makes a siege film, one goes up against some truly great works, from Gunga Din to the original Assault on Precinct 13.

The worst aspects of the film wind up being the script and some shoddy directorial work, both of which were Mr. King’s responsibility.  This is a film that in more experienced hands could easily have been far –far– more suspenseful.  However, Mr. King’s story is at times very campy while his (for the most part) hillbilly characters are difficult to root for. As for the direction, it does try to go for gore (and succeeds, though we’ve seen worse by now) but never quite delivers the scares promised by Mr. King himself in the film’s admittedly memorable trailer.

Still, I can’t entirely hate the film.  It is what it is: an attempt to create a cheesy horror film without any pretensions to a more lofty or classic film standard.  Maximum Overdrive is dispensable entertainment, and some might even argue it is little more than a good guilty pleasure.

So yes, while there are far better siege films out there and I recommend them highly over Maximum Overdrive,  I’ll also turn around and say that if you’re in the mood for cheesy no-brain entertainment, you could do worse.

P.S.:  Intriguingly, the very end of this film was essentially lifted whole in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.  I can’t help but wonder if this was done on purpose.