Maximum Overdrive is a 1986 American science fiction horror dark comedy film written and directed by Stephen King. The film stars Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington, and Yeardley Smith. The screenplay was inspired by and loosely based on King’s short story “Trucks”, which was included in the author’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift.
Maximum Overdrive is King’s only directorial effort, though dozens of films have been based on his novels or short stories. The film contained black humor elements and a generally campy tone, which contrasts with King’s sombre subject matter in books. The film has a mid-1980s hard rock soundtrack composed entirely by the group AC/DC, King’s favorite band. AC/DC’s album Who Made Who was released as the Maximum Overdrive soundtrack. It includes the best-selling singles “Who Made Who”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, and “Hells Bells”.
The film was nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards including Worst Director for King and Worst Actor for Estevez in 1987, but both lost against Prince for Under the Cherry Moon. In 1988, Maximum Overdrive was nominated for “Best Film” at the International Fantasy Film Awards. King himself described the film as a “moron movie”. He considers the process a learning experience, after which he intended never to direct again.
In 1987, as the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, previously inanimate machines suddenly spring to life and turn homicidal. In a pre-title scene, a man (King in a cameo) tries to withdraw money from an ATM, but it instead calls him an “asshole”, and he complains to his wife (King’s real life wife Tabitha). A bascule bridge inexplicably raises during heavy traffic, resulting in all vehicles upon the bridge at the point of elevation either falling into the river, or gradually colliding together as they rapidly collect towards the bridge base, resulting in multiple injuries and fatalities. Soon chaos begins as machines of all kinds come to life and begin assaulting humans. At a roadside truck stop just outside Wilmington, North Carolina, an employee, Duncan Keller, is blinded after a gas dispenser sprays diesel in his eyes. A waitress is injured by an electric knife, and arcade machines in the back room electrocute another victim. Employee and ex-convict Bill Robinson begins to suspect something is wrong. Meanwhile, at a Little League game, a vending machine kills the coach by firing canned soda point-blank into his groin then to his skull. A driverless steamroller flattens one of the fleeing children, but one named Deke Keller (Duncan’s son) manages to escape on his bike.
A newly-wed couple, Connie (Yeardley Smith) and Curtis (John Short), stop at a gas station, where a brown tow truck tries to kill Curtis, but he and Connie escape in their car. Deke rides through his town as humans and even pets are brutally killed by lawnmowers, chainsaws, electric hair dryers, pocket radios, and RC cars. A driverless ice cream truck begins to stalk Deke, but he hides from the truck in the bushes until a lawn mower is after him as he gets back on his bicycle. Back at the truck stop, a red trash truck runs over Duncan and hits the car that belongs to a Bible salesman who gets run down by a black Western Star 4800 sporting a giant Green Goblin mask on its grille. Later, all the big rig trucks roar to life, led by the Happy Toyz (Green Goblin) truck, and surround the truck stop, trapping the rest of the humans inside the diner.
Meanwhile on the main highway, Connie and Curtis are chased by a truck, but they make it crash off the side of the road. Curtis suggests that they should call the police from the truck stop, only to find it surrounded by trucks. The two try to drive into the parking lot through a gap between the trucks, but the car is hit and flips over. Bill and Brett, a hitchhiker who came in with the Bible salesman, rush out to help them, but the trucks attempt to attack them. Bill’s boss Hendershot uses M72 LAW rockets he had stored in a bunker hidden under the diner to destroy many of the trucks. Deke makes it to the truck stop later that evening and tries to get in via the sewers, but can’t due to the wire mesh covering the opening. That night, the survivors hear screaming from the Bible salesman in a ditch, and Bill and Curtis sneak out to help him by climbing through the sewers. Deke finds the Bible salesman and thinks he’s dead, but he suddenly jumps up and attacks Deke. Bill and Curtis rescue Deke, and a truck chases them back into the pipe.
The next morning, a Caterpillar D7G bulldozer and a M274 Mule drive through the diner. Hendershot uses the rocket launcher to blow the bulldozer away. The Mule fires its post-mounted M60 machine gun into the building, killing several including Hendershot and the waitress when she drunkenly rants at them. The Mule then demands, via sending morse code signals through its horn that Deke deciphers, that the humans pump the trucks’ diesel for them in exchange for keeping them alive. The survivors soon realize they have become enslaved by their own machines. Robinson suggests they escape to a local island just off the coast, on which no vehicles or machines are permitted.
During a fueling operation, Robinson sneaks a grenade onto the Mule vehicle, destroying it, then leads the party out of the diner via a sewer hatch to the main road just as the trucks demolish the entire truck stop. The survivors are pursued to the docks by the Green Goblin truck. The survivors try to hide behind a diner, but an electronic menu blares “Humans Here” until Deke uses a machine gun to destroy the sign. The same ice cream truck that stalked Deke barrels toward them, but Curtis and Brett destroy it with machine guns. The team makes it the docks, and the Green Goblin truck follows them, managing to kill Brad the trucker after he steals a large diamond ring from a female corpse in a car. Robinson destroys the truck once and for all with a direct hit from an M72 LAW rocket shot. The survivors then sail off to safety. A title card epilogue explains that two days later, a UFO was destroyed by a Soviet “weather satellite” conveniently equipped with class IV nuclear missiles and a laser cannon. Six days later, the Earth passes out of the comet’s tail, and the survivors are still survivors.
- Emilio Estevez as William “Bill” Robinson
- Pat Hingle as Bubba Hendershot
- Laura Harrington as Brett Graham
- Yeardley Smith as Connie
- John Short as Curtis
- Ellen McElduff as Wanda June
- Frankie Faison as Handy
- Leon Rippy as Brad
- Christopher Murney as Camp Loman
- J. C. Quinn as Duncan Keller
- Holter Graham as Deke Keller
- Barry Bell as Steve Gayton
- Patrick Miller as Joey
- J. Don Ferguson as Andy
- Giancarlo Esposito as Video player
- Stephen King (cameo) as ATM man
The film was the first to be made by Embassy Pictures after it had been bought by Dino de Laurentiis. In a 2002 interview with Tony Magistrale for the book Hollywood’s Stephen King, King stated that he was “coked out of [his] mind all through its production, and [he] really didn’t know what [he] was doing”.
Maximum Overdrive received overwhelmingly negative reviews, earning a “Rotten” score of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes. In Leonard Maltin’s annual publication TV Movie Guide, the film is given a “BOMB” rating. Two Golden Raspberry Award nominations were given out, to Emilio Estevez for Worst Actor and King for Worst Director.
John Clute and Peter Nichols have offered a modest reappraisal of Maximum Overdrive, admitting the film’s many flaws, but arguing that several scenes display enough visual panache to suggest that King was not entirely without talent as a director.
In an interview discussing the television adaptation of Under the Dome, King admitted that Maximum Overdrive was the worst adaptation of his work.