Maximum Overdrive (1986) Retrospective

As the Earth crosses the tail of a comet, previously inanimate machines suddenly spring to life; an ATM insults a customer (King in a cameo) and a bascule bridge rises during heavy traffic, causing all vehicles upon the bridge to fall into the river or collide. Chaos sets in as machines of all kinds begin attacking 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, Wanda June, 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 skull. A driverless steamroller flattens one of the fleeing children, but one named Deke Keller (Duncan’s son) manages to escape on his bike.

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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. At the truck stop, a black Western Star 4800 sporting a giant Green Goblin mask on its grille runs over a Bible salesman after a red garbage truck kills Duncan and dumps some of the junk on the Bible salesman’s car to make him so angry that he insults its “driver”. Later, several big rig trucks encircle the truck stop.


Meanwhile, Connie and Curtis are pursued by a truck, but they make it crash off the side of the road as it exploded. They arrive at the truck stop and try to pass between the trucks, but their car is hit and overturns. Bill and Brett, a hitchhiker, rush to help them, but the trucks 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 enter via the sewers, but is obstructed by the wire mesh covering the opening. That night, the survivors hear the Bible salesman screaming in a ditch, and Bill and Curtis sneak out to help him by climbing through the sewers. Deke finds the Bible salesman and believes he is dead, but he suddenly jumps up and attacks Deke. Bill and Curtis rescue Deke, and a truck chases them back into the pipe.

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The next morning, a Caterpillar D7G bulldozer and an 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 people. 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 their lives. 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 motorised vehicles are permitted. While the crew is resting, Robinson theorizes that the comet is actually a “broom” operated by interstellar aliens that are using our machines to destroy humanity so the aliens can repopulate the Earth. 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, which manages to kill Brad the trucker. Robinson destroys the truck 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 alive.

In the late Seventies. Milton Subotsky purchased seven early King short stories from an American production company. Three of these. “The Lawnmower Man.” “The Mangler” and “Trucks. were targeted to comprise The Machines, which was to be a three part anthology film. Early on. King was approached by Subotsky about writing and directing adaptations of all or part of the material King demurred Referring to the stories, he later told a reporter . I know that if Subotsky made it, it would actually be worse than if they were never made at all. I don’t like to root for my things not to be made, except in certain cases, but…”

Milton Subotsky
Milton Subotsky

Needless to say, Subotsky proceeded without the writer’s input. He commissioned Edward and Valerie Abraham to draft a screenplay using the three King stories. The husband and wife writing team had previously scripted The Monster Club in 1980, Subotsky’s last produced film. Shortly after that film’s release. Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg, the other half of Amicus Productions, became involved in a lengthy, expensive, and less than amicable legal row.

Burdened with court costs, Subotsky sold off some of his King story rights to the De Laurentiis organization. Two stories were eventually used in the Martha Schumacher produced Cat’s Eye. Now. with The Machines script in hand, Subotsky tried to find American financial backing, but to no avail. Again. Schumacher now head of production at De Laurentiis) and Subotsky did some business Schumacher initially purchased all three “mechanical stories for development, but, apparently having convinced King to act as screen writer, ultimately concentrated solely on Trucks.

Subotsky believes King’s claims of never having read the Abrahams’ work, but he has made noises about certain conceptual elements contained in the non. Trucks segments of his commissioned screenplay finding their way into Maximum Overdrive, King’s “Trucks-derived screenplay. Whatever the case. Subotsky received a co-producer’s credit at the end of another De Laurentiis/King film as he had with Cat’s Eye.

When De Laurentiis first acquired the property, he asked King to write the screenplay. King originally declined. De Laurentiis and producer Martha Schumacher approached him again a few weeks later and asked him to at least write a treatment. “I really didn’t want to do it. I didn’t have time to do it,” King recalls, but the thing with Dino is that he’s almost telepathic. He knows when the ideas have started to sink in. I had suggested another writer for the treatment and, frankly, neither one of us liked what he had come up with.

“I had been kicking around some ideas, this idea about the comet and all the machinery going crazy, not just the trucks like in the original story. So, Dino called a week later and asked me one more time to do the screenplay. I immediately said yes, because by then, I had a very clear picture of the plot and found myself wanting to go ahead with the adaptation.”

King’s ideas were so clear that he specified more than a thousand shots within the screenplay. De Laurentiis response was to ask him to direct. King decided that, yeah sure, he’d like to direct the picture himself. Admitting to being tired of being asked why the films of his books had for the most part, turned out to be so disappointing, King rationalized that with all these people ruining his material, he might as well as it go himself wanted to do it once because I thought I might be able to do a better job than some of the people who have done.” King stated. He was sure he couldn’t do any worse. Or course, with total control comes total responsibility as well.

So King signed up-another first-time director Dino took a fly on. The writer was to have the rare luxury of learning how to dire by helming his own $10 million picture. Talk about on the job training. The results? Well, it was in focus.


Filming began July 14 at locations near the De Laurentiis facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. One of the first major FX shots involved a massive collision of cars when a drawbridge lifts on its own. A small scale model was built near an existing bridge and, by angling the camera over the foreground model, an illusion of perspective made the miniature appear in the same location as the existing bridge, complete with tiny wrecks and itty-bitty mangled bodies.

At a location 10 miles outside of town at the edge of a highway, the company constructed the Dixie Boy as a facsimile of a working truck stop. It was convincing enough that more than one trucker stopped in. Eventually, the producers were forced to place an announcement in the local papers advising residents that the Dixie Boy was a prop. Of the $10 million allotted for Maximum Overdrive, most was spent on location shooting, the Dixie Boy set, and the hardware-big diesel semi-trailer tractors, vans, front loaders, a bus or two, and assorted other vehicles.

“I argued very hard to get $100,000 for a truck ‘hospital’ fund explains King. “The vehicles were taking such a beating. I never got it, though, and I think it hurt us a little bit in the end. I had to make some compromises there.”

King noted earlier, he blew up a lot of things. He celebrated his birthday on location and part of his present was an explosive surprise. All the crew members wore fangs at the celebration and one FX technician handed King a button near twilight and said, “Press this.” King did so and triggered a massive fireworks display rigged by the crew. The party was one of the few times that King was able to relax. Before principal photography wrapped on October 2, he got an intense “how-to” course in filmmaking.

“I had to make my share of compromises, but I think that if anything astonished me, it was how much more I could get then I thought I could. I got more from my actors than I thought I could, more from special effects, from film editing, from the camera department, everything. I guess I didn’t realize how good they were.”

The bridge destruction scene involved miniatures

King’s first day’s as director DeLaurentiis visited the North Carolina location and surveyed King’s progress for fifteen minutes before leaving. Later, after that day’s dailies, DeLaurentiis gave King some choice criticisms on the stiff movements of his actors. “At first. I was mad as hell.” King growled. “I’m saying to myself *This guy comes out here for fifteen minutes and he takes this look and he gets back into his air-conditioned Rolls Royce while I continue to soak my jockey shorts in this damn sun.’ But I went back and looked at the dailies and he was right. Those people were stiff and wooden and totally static. Dino came out there and saw it right away.”

But still, there is Dino to contend with. “God knows, the man has made some really awful pictures,” said King. “But’ know, I agreed to do MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE for Dino because win, lose, or draw-and the man can have some pretty outlandish ideas at times-he has never told me a lie. He said he doesn’t lie to people anymore because it isn’t profitable.”


It used to be a truck stop. Now it looks like a war zone. Everything except the Dixie Boy diner is in a state of ruin. A truck that once hauled toilet paper lies exploded in the grey dirt parking lot, the unburned rolls of tissue streaming in the night wind. Burned-out cars litter the area. The constant parade of huge tractor-trailers fills the air with dust as the big rigs circle the diner, waiting for the humans to come out.

This truck stop sprung from Hell is the North Carolina set for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. But with all the signs of devastation and even with North Carolina State Troopers stationed along the highway on either side of the diner, passing travelers still pull in to the phony gas pumps, looking for a fill-up, a quick cup of coffee, a place to stretch their legs and relieve themselves. A grip hustles across the lot explaining that it’s only a movie, that there’s no gas in the pumps and no coffee or anything else-inside the Dixie Boy.

Some of the people driving in probably know that. They’ve probably heard that Stephen King is making a movie right down the road a piece and think it might be kind of neat to take the family for a closeup look at some genuine moviemaking. They see lots of lights and cables and fabricated destruction while popular author Stephen King holes-up inside the Dixie Boy diner, learning what it’s like to occupy the director’s chair.

After filming was completed King offered a different view. “Now that it’s all over I can say that I can direct actors, but I’m not very good with cars and trucks, Actually, I had a lot more trouble with machines. My thought going into it was that a machine is never going to tell you, “Fuck you, I can’t work today because I’ve got a hangover. ‘What a machine will do is break down on the hottest day of the year. We had old air-start trucks and when they wouldn’t start they had to be aired out and then aired up again with a compressor.


“We had incredible problems trying to get cordless electric knives. Apparently there are very few cordless ones on the market so special effects rigged up three to run on vibrator motors and Emilio hammered two of them to death on takes that were no good.”

Still, directing agrees with King. It’s late, nearly midnight, the crew is grumpy, the dust chokes everything, the night chill has set in, but the director is his usual amiable self, relaxed, joking, but serious about what he’s doing.

King takes it all in stride, openly commenting on his novice status as a director, often joking about the film school teachings to which he has never been exposed. “I was surprised by how little 1 actually knew,” said King. “When we started out I figured I’d sort of ease into this like into cold water. Well, we were shooting truck interiors, really second unit stuff, on Dino’s back lot. Trucks running themselves, gearshifts going up gas pedals going down. And I had this sequence for one of the trucks that went like this: the clutch goes in, the transmission lever goes up, the clutch goes out, the gas pedal goes down.

“We shot it with the driver’s side door open and everything was fine except the transmission lever. It stuck up so high could see the studio through the windshield. I said, ‘that’s okay, we’ll go around and shoot it from the other side. Well, everybody just looked at me the way you’d look at somebody who’s had a loud fart in a room and doesn’t know enough to excuse himself. And nobody said a word!


“When I came down here, everybody was in awe-enfant terrible, or whatever that is. Nobody wanted to say, ‘You screwed up. Finally someone took me aside and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said,

“Why?’ He said, ‘It’s across the axis.’ I said, “What?’ He said, ‘It’s the wrong side. He explained that it wouldn’t cut, you’d confuse the audience. We went into my office where there’s a model of the Dixie Boy and some lead figures and he lined everything up and showed it to me the way you’d show a kid. And it wasn’t until we accidentally shot across the axis a few weeks later that I fully understood.

“You learn all that stuff in film school.” King said, “but I’m learning as I go. “Later in the evening King pulls a pack of cigarettes from the rack behind the Dixie Boy’s cash register even as unit publicist Michael Klastorin cautions against disturbing anything for the sake of continuity. “Continuity?” King asks, “what’s that? Something they teach you in film school?

MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, King, Stephen, 1986

Obviously joking, King has reached the point in the production where he feels confident about his work. Later he would say that were he to direct another film, “I would do a lot of things differently and probably better. I would spend less time in preparation and leave myself a lot more open to innovation.”

Being a first-time director, King spent considerable time preparing for the job. Storyboards were prepared as production aides, but by this night in October he has abandoned them and is relying more on impulse, allowing the film to shape itself in much the same way he allows his novels to develop their own plot details.

“I’ve never used a story outline. That’s not the way I work. We had a guy come in and do some storyboards and they helped because you have a situation where you have to introduce this restaurant and establish it for the audience pretty quickly. The storyboards helped with that. But you should be open to improvisation. I’ve learned that. You reach a point where you feel like you’re not being ridden anymore, you’re riding. That’s how I feel now. I feel like I’m sorta in charge of this thing. Then he laughs.

Surprisingly, King doesn’t see the writer as being the most important element of a movie, “Writing screenplays is work for idiots,” he said without hesitation. And he has no problem accepting the theory that the director is the author” of a film. “Ideally the writer and the director should be in bed together throughout the whole process. But the director is probably the actual author of the film. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here, to see if I can get at whatever it is about my work that makes it a Stephen King story.”


After seven weeks of filming at the Dixie Boy, King is more confident about film directing and his ability to maybe capture that intangible something that makes Stephen King “Stephen King.” He also acted as second unit director-picking up shots that didn’t require the featured actors’ presence. Many of the secondary shots involved the apparently driverless trucks and it soon became a matter of logistics. A difficult staging problem was disguising Glenn Randall’s stunt drivers. One solution was to drape the cabs in black felt and suit up the drivers in Ninja-like costumes to hide them. Special compartments were built in some trucks and one driver was disguised as a seat cushion.

The trucks rev up, ready to chase each other head-to-tail around and around the Dixie Boy for more takes, and somehow I find myself outside, right in the middle of the noise and the dust. I try to get back inside the diner, but filming has begun and Emilio Estevez, is seriously involved in the scene. A crew member charges out the door and announces, “Emilio’s on the edge again.” I’m told I’ll have to stay outside for a while, so I watch the trucks.

They’re the huge rumbling rigs that dwarf your car on the highways and interstates, seemingly oblivious to anything in their path. It’s easy to understand why King, like Richard Matheson before him, is able to find the element of fear in these eighteen wheelers. There’s something disconcerting about these trucks and finally it becomes clear. There are no drivers. The steering wheels, barely visible, are turning themselves.

When they grind to a stop, a door on one of the trucks opens and a man dressed all in black drops to the ground and leaves the truck. “It’s so simple,” says special effects technician David Sandlin, “there’s nothing to it.” He opens the door of the empty truck. “Take a look.” The truck’s sleeper cab behind the driver’s seat has been stripped and a seat for the driver has been mounted in place of the bedding. All we do is set everything back, “Sandlin explains. “Nothing’s changed. We just get pick-up points elsewhere. You weld a rod to the stick shift so the gears can be changed from here, cut the steering column and attach a chain for steering. It’s just like any other truck except that the controls are further back.

The drivers wear black clothes and sit behind a sheer black curtain that separates the sleeper from the front of the cab and the result is a truck that convincingly appears to drive itself.


Sandlin has been kept busy blowing up trucks. The toilet paper truck lying ruined in the parking lot was destroyed with mortar shells Sandlin rigged inside the trailer, angled outward in opposite directions.

The other night we blew up a beer truck. We cut out the top of the trailer, took off the doors and replaced them with dummies. We filled the trailer with fifty gallon drums of soapy water and rigged it with primer cord lifters, then fired a modified missile at the truck and it blows everything out, all over the place.”

The Dixie Boy diner has also received Sandlin’s attention. “It looks good, doesn’t it?” he asks, indicating the front of the building that was erected especially for OVERDRIVE. “Last night it was covered with bullet holes. We tore it up pretty good.”

To show the people trapped inside that they mean business, the trucks outside bring in an army truck armed with a high caliber machine gun that opens fire on the diner. “We set about 500 squibs made of a substance called Roma Plastolina and covered them up with duct tape. Out of the 500 only one didn’t go off. That’s a great ratio.

“We also built a breakaway wall with a sub-floor for a scene where one of the trucks rams the diner. What happens is it breaks through the wall, then drops through the floor boards. But the biggest thing we’ll do is blow this whole thing up.” Sandlin is specifically a pyrotechnician, and he clearly delights in his work.

“We’ll load this place with gasoline, diesel fuel, primer cord, and thermex which is eighty percent dynamite. Now I know where the safe line is. It’s across the highway over there. I’ll show them right where to set up, because that’s where I’m going to be. Some people like to get in closer, but not me. I’ve got the line marked and I’ll be on the other side of it.”


The set was then duplicated in exact miniature by model maker Emilio Ruiz del Río. As the Dixie Boy also house Hendershot’s collection of stolen Army munitions, the film’s 9 minutes of extensive stunts, pyrotechnical work and gore effects culminated in the spectacular destruction of both life-size and miniature sets. The fiery destruction of the Dixie Boy was achieved blowing the full-scale set with thermite and incline mixture, and similarly torching the finely detailed miniature, Though far different in scale, the footage from these two sets cut together seamlessly.

“To be honest with you, Maximum Overdrive is not a makeup effects film,” admits the 28-year-old Gates, a relative movie newcomer. “Basically, I had to deliver the aftermath of what happens when the machines come to life and take out their hatred on the human race. We have several people who get run over by trucks, and other makeups as the machines-chainsaws, electric knives, etc.-go berserk.”


“I was left on my own pretty much,” he explains. “I would try and feel King out on an idea, how he would like to see it. During pre-production, he gave me a feeling of what he wanted, and I would go off and work on it. And, if I pushed for something bigger, he would reconsider it and sometimes go with my idea. He was wide open on almost everything.”

One thing that King certainly pushed for during Maximum Overdrive was more blood. He loved it! That was a concern all along, whether or not we had too much blood. Stephen took great delight in pouring blood on stuff. He even named me Doctor Dean.”

In the film’s original planning it was decided that truck attacks would be acted using actors and stuntmen, augmenting the effect in the editing process. By the time filming was underway plans were changed, and a decision was made to use dummies during the attack sequences, particularly in the case of J.C. Quinn, who plays Duncan, a mechanic at the truck stop.

It was a last minute decision, but fortunately I had already made a cast of J.C. hcad for appliances. Gates made the cast by covering Quinn’s head with dental impression cream backed with plaster bandages. When the cast sets it is removed and filled with microcrystaline wax to make a positive impression of the head. It is on the wax model that the proper facial expression is fashioned. A urethane rubber mold is made from the finished model and then any number of heads can be produced from the rubber mold.

“Originally we didn’t design it for blood and guts so we had to go back and do that. We had to hustle to get it done. It took about a week-and-a-half. We mounted the head on a foam dummy rigged with pipe to give it rigidity. There was some talk of articulating it so the arms would move and all that, but we dropped it. When the shot was done it ended up being shot from behind so all the work we did on the head won’t be seen. But there’s a really good blood bag loaded in that one.”


It was easier for Gates to toss a victim to a runaway steam roller: “On that one we just used a rag dummy loaded with blood bags. It was just for the effect of the blood spewing up.”

The most satisfying work Gates has done for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is his work on Christopher Murney who plays Camp Loman, an early victim of the truck attacks. “He gets knocked in a ditch and everybody thinks he’s dead, but he’s still alive. At one point he sits up and a flap of skin falls off to show the skull underneath. We put a plate, a two-piece makeup.just above his eyebrow. The skull was laid over because I needed a tube-fed bladder to pump blood through a hole in the skull.


“I coated the inside of the appliance with a product called ‘Ultraslime.’ When it’s pulled apart it makes strands of goo as an extra effect. Because of the Ultraslime we had to rig a monofilament line, black fishing line actually, in order to get the flap to peel off. It took a couple of takes to get all the moves worked out so the line isn’t seen. Chris delivered his lines to me as I pumped the bladder and he reacted to my expression as all this blood and goo gushes out and it all worked. I don’t think they’ll cut any of it because he has some pretty important lines there.”


Gates enjoys the challenge of big, striking makeup effects, trying to bring a new twist to something that had been done countless times before. But he also has respect for the more commonplace, day to-day duties of the makeup department. “More subtle effects are really more difficult to perfect, because you don’t necessarily want the audience to notice it as an effect. It’s just something that’s there, like the blisters on Emilio’s hands. That can be a great challenge.”

To please both sides, King filmed two different versions of a potentially gory sequence in which a kid riding a bicycle gets run over-and squished-by a driverless steamroller. This one scene, according to Gates, caused the biggest editing room dilemmas. Unlike those Road Runner cartoons, nobody jumps back up after a tar-smoother attack!

“We shot it two ways,” Gates elaborates, with blood and without blood. On the first take, we had a dummy’s head filled with loose chopped foam, so when it popped, what looked like mashed potatoes came out. It was bizarre. We filled the second dummy with lots of blood bags, and when crushed, the blood splashed all over.”


A more subtle shock moment in Maximum Overdrive begins as potential comic relief, but quickly turns tragic. A coach  approaches an automatic soda machine that unexpectedly spits out the carbonated cans with rocket-like velocity. One hits him in the chest, then the crotch and stomach, and finally, the uncooperative machine beans him fatally in the head. King wanted Gates to devise a can indented forehead for the coach.

“Originally, I was going to put a sponge soaked in blood on the bottom of a rubber can,” Gates explains, “but then it would just be a bloody splat effect. Finally, I made a rubber bladder and sealed it on the coach’s head with mortician’s wax. Next, I drilled little holes in the bladder. The tube was hidden in his hair. Then, we hit him in the head with the rubber can and pumped blood under pressure through the holes. The blood seems to swell up on his head and gush out.”


Gates adds that the deadly can episode didn’t work the first time. “I had sealed the thing with plastic sealant and closed the holes. So, on the first take where we applied pressure, the blood started to swell up and the bladder got bigger and bigger, but no blood came out. It looked like a baseball expanding out of his head. Suddenly it popped and blood sprayed out like a fountain! King had the take printed so we could laugh it up during dailies.”


Another actor, Christopher Murney. doesn’t fare much better than the coach in Maximum Overdrive following a close encounter with a terror truck. Murney gets knocked through the air and lands in a muddy ditch, presumably dead. Later, the mud-covered fellow rises from his temporary grave, while a sizable portion of his noggin hangs limply, more cerebral FX work for Gates and his crew.

“We put a bladder on his forehead-similar to the one on the coach-that allowed blood to be pumped through a tube and into the bladder. On top of the bladder, we placed an appliance which looked like a large gaping wound with exposed skull and hole bashed into it. A second appliance-the same size of the wound opening-filled it in and resembled a flap of loose skin.

“A piece of black thread was attached to the appliance, so when the guy rears up. I pulled the string and the flap opened up and blood surged through the wound. Murney really enjoyed working with the makeup.”

The rest of Gates’ Maximum Overdrive FX workload largely consisted of making up victims after their offscreen attacks: a torn neck from a chainsaw backfire, burned face stuff following video machine frying, a gas station attendant’s crushed-in skull courtesy of a disobedient tow truck, and for the result of a human versus lawnmower fight, Gates simply adlibbed and spread chicken livers and hamburger meat across the loser’s mug. But, his toughest challenge on Maximum Overdrive was ensuring that the dummies didn’t look like dummies when hit by King’s violent vehicles.


“Glenn Randall, our stunt coordinator, told me that any movement which can be put into a dummy makes the illusion work better,” Gates remembers. Most of the time you’re dealing with an actor who runs to the approaching car. then a shot of the coming car, and then you cut to the dummy being hit. Putting movement into the dummy makes it appear less of a static object. The trick is to choreograph the stunt closely with the actor and then set up the dummy to duplicate the motions. One dummy was rigged with a piece of monofilament wire which enabled us to move it back and forth.”

Despite the sometimes tedious FX and stunt set-ups, director King remained patient throughout, according to Gates. “King was always happy during Maximum Overdrive and did everything to make it work. He was really organized and knew each shot he wanted. There wasn’t any indecisiveness.”

When originally submitted to the ratings board, King’s MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE got an X-rating for its excessive violence-a verdict that initially angered king because it forced him to make some cuts. “You can’t go X-rated or unrated because you run into (advertising) problems,” he said. “There is, in fact, a huge machine in place that is, in effect, economic censorship.”

Fortunately, the X-rating was only based on three counts of extreme violence, so the cuts, King said, don’t hinder the film much. “We took out one of the scenes where a man sits up and grabs this kid and half of his face slides off (see above). I thought the makeup guy kinda got carried away there. And there was a steamroller scene and a head pop that just makes strong men weak. But that whole thing was an accident, anyway. We got ready to shoot the steamroller going over a dummy of one of the actors, which was really all we were going to do, when I got an idea. I went over to Dean (Gates, the makeup designer) and I said “Gimmie a baggie of blood.’ So he gets it and he says ‘Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do?’ like a kid–we were both like kids. Then I stuffed the baggie into the dummy’s jacket.

“All I thought would happen was that the steamroller would go over the dummy, pop the bag, then the blood would get on the roller and we could pan as it made this print of blood as it went on. But what you get instead-and it’s all real, none of it is simulated or laid in-you get this grisly pop sound and it looks like the kid’s head explodes and blood splashes everywhere.” King laughed maniacally, delighted with the vision of cascading blood. “I showed the scene to George Romero and he goes ‘Ohhhh and turned his head away! It was great! I said ‘Oh, I can’t believe it! I did it to George!

“But the ratings board made us take out the splash-I got most of it in. The scene shocked people because they had never seen anything like that before. They won’t see it now either. The problem with the ratings system is the curse of expectation; everybody who goes to the movies now knows exactly what they’re not going to see.”

King has gone on record as saying he meant to make a simple “moron movie, nothing more than fast-food entertainment for the drive-in crowd. As Maximum Overdrive was a crash course in the directorial process an undertaking rampant with technical emotional artistic and political quandaries. It is just as well for King that his sights weren’t aimed higher. It might have been better for De Laurentiis, however. Maximum Overdrive opened to hear unanimous critical pans and widespread audience apathy. The picture quickly disappeared from neighborhood screens to reappear in video stores 120 days later.

King is as hard on himself as any critic when pinpointing why MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE wasn’t a success. “I didn’t do a very good job of directing it,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of production support from the DeLaurentiis organization which, by that time, was beginning to get on extremely thin ice financially. We probably didn’t have enough time in post-production. I’ll tell you what MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE was for me. It was a crash course in film school. What some guys take six years to learn, I learned in about ten weeks. The result was a picture that was just terrible. But it had some things in it that make me think, ‘Well, I can go back and I can do it right the second time. Now I understand.”

King admitted to scenes he’d like to reshoot, and casting decisions he’d make differently, but he also harbored an admiration for some of his work behind the camera. “There are isolated moments in the film that I think are okay, that I really like to look at,” he said. “Here’s this little kid riding his bike down this deserted street. He’s looking, and whatever happened has already happened. He sees legs sticking out of bushes, he sees a dog with a radio-controlled car in his mouth, a lady who has been strangled by her own hairdryer. That particular sequence is alive for me the way a lot of the movies are just sort of static.”

King pegged some of the fault for his directorial misstep to his fondness for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. “To my mind, he’s still the person who did this field the best,” said King. “And I’m talking about suspense. Because I was new and I’d never done anything like this before, I read a book about Hitchcock, about the way he worked. I read that he had said at some point that actually making the movie was the dullest part of the experience. What he really liked to do was plan everything in advance. He said [shooting] was the dullest part, because once he started there were no surprises. That’s exactly what I wanted! I wanted no surprises whatsoever so I did it that way. I planned out, shot-for-shot, literally angle-for-angle, everything I wanted in the movie. What never crossed my mind until I began to see rough assemblies of the stuff, when it was really too late to back out, was that this was never the way that I work creatively. My idea is to just get in there and just bash away, take the materials that are available and put them together in a hurry and go on.”


King did get some unexpected allowances. 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”.

Stephen King

Martha Schumacher

Stephen King

Based on “Trucks”
by Stephen King

Emilio Estevez as 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
C. Quinn as Duncan Keller
Holter Graham as Deke Keller
Barry Bell as Steve Gayton

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2 thoughts on “Maximum Overdrive (1986) Retrospective

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