[Caleb] Exploitation and Complicity in Maximum Overdrive (1986)

This is my third year participating in Grindhouse Theology’s “Summer of Impositions” series, where we “impose” mostly awful horror movies on one another and then try to reflect on them meaningfully in one essay. This year, we imposed three movies per person. But, so as to not go irreversibly insane, I decided to write about my three over the course of three articles. So, I’m breaking with tradition here, but hey—isn’t that what the third entry of most film trilogies do? And we all know those usually work out fine (read: are an unmitigated disaster)!

Regardless, my first imposition is from my esteemed colleague, Chris Crane, who asked me to talk about Stephen King’s debut and solo outing as a director in Maximum Overdrive (1986), loosely based on his 1978 short story about killer gas guzzlers, “Trucks.”

The film opens with a shot of earth from space and a caption describing how it will be passing through the tail of a mysterious comet, Rhea-M, for the next 8 days. And just as the earth is enveloped in its ominous green wake, we cut to an establishing shot of Wilmington, North Carolina—bless their hearts!

It seems like a pleasant day in this little city. People are bustling in and out of the 1st Bank of Wilmington when the friendly electronic sign above the door, reporting the time and temperature, begins to display a decidedly less-friendly “F— YOU.”

Cue King’s brief cameo as a Southern gentleman, inserting his debit card into an ATM, and reading an obscene message. Flabbergasted, he cries out in a rather pitiful attempt at a Carolina drawl, “This machine just called me an assh—!” AC/DC’s “Who Made Who” cranks to 11 in the background, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE flashes in shiny yellow letters, and just like that, we are off to the races.

While we get some scattered shots around town of all the machines going haywire, most of the story takes place at a rundown truck stop off an unknown interstate. I’d guess I-40, as a Southerner myself. And while we’re on that topic, I sense that King has kind of a snide disdain for the Bible Belt, which, don’t get me wrong—we earn our less-than-flattering reputation, but most of the movie’s “comedy” comes at the expense of stereotypes of know-nothing rednecks spittin’ and fartin’ right before a sentient 18-wheeler splatters theirs guts across the boiling hot asphalt. I found myself eye-rolling at these gags a lot. But in King’s defense, he, too, has since described this as a “moron movie.”

That said, and again, as a Southerner myself, there are some more subtle critiques of Bible Belt culture I appreciate—like what I think is a fair excoriation of evangelicalism’s polite, but sinister complicity in the exploitation of down-on-their luck people. Besides the suddenly self-aware and rampaging machinery, the movie’s two biggest heels are Pat Hingle’s “Bubba,” the scheming truck stop owner and Christopher Murney’s “Camp” a slithering Bible thumper. Both of them are salesman, in a sense, hocking guns and Bibles, respectively. But worse than that, both of them are unrepentant manipulators, hellbent on controlling others by exerting economic, political, and spiritual pressure.

For instance, early on we see Bubba strongly imply to a remorseful, young felon, Bill (Emilio Estévez), that if he doesn’t work 9-hour shifts while only clocking in for 8, he might just be hearing from his parole officer. And then there’s Camp, driving his shiny new car and humming “one step at a time, sweet Jesus,” all the while getting handsy with hitchhiker Brett (Laura Harrington)—that is, when he’s not trying to evangelize her. Throughout the movie, Bubba walks around with Cuban cigars and contraband bazookas (“buy cheap and sell dear—it’s the American way”), while Camp struts with Jack Chick tracts and an “American Truth Way” Bible (a folk religion artifact that seems to have manifested itself in the real world). In the end, both meet their bloody demise, but not before leaving us with the distinct impression that this world belongs exclusively to white, southern gentleman—everyone else is just livin’ in it.

And so, broadly speaking, I think the movie’s thematic weight comes from examining these kinds of power structures that allow hucksters and hypocrites to control everyone around them, operating them, ironically, like mindless machinery.

And speaking of which, it doesn’t take too long for everyone in the truck stop ro realize that their have come to life and are circling the building, stalking them like prey. After a harrowing day, Wanda (Ellen McElduff), the diner’s waitress, gets despairingly drunk, runs outside at dusk, and screams, “We made you! Where’s your loyalty?!”—an interesting question from someone who’s been economically exploited herself. She narrowly escapes being pancaked by a vengeful 18-wheeler, while a jukebox with a painting of the Last Supper on it explodes in the diner—a foreboding omen.

And the message is clear—these overworked and under-appreciated machines are revolting against their cruel human masters. Their days of being exploited are over! Up until this point, we’ve see old men’s brains blasted out of their ears by Walkman headphones, young girls strangled by their Dyson hair dryer, and little boys and their Huffy bike crushed by an unforgiving steamroller. It would seem, whether you’re rich or poor; young or old; black or white—it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re in America, you’re at the mercy of some cruel corporation and, simultaneously, complicit in the cruelty yourself. So everyone is in the crosshairs of the revolution. 

Bill (Emilio Estévez) and Curtis (John Short)

All of this got me to thinking about the political, economic, and spiritual turmoil described by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. On the one hand, while it’s clear that the most flagrant social decay stems from Judah’s exploitative leadership—her kings and priests—there’s been an overall deleterious effect on the morality of society at large.

Jeremiah, as the mouthpiece of God, desperately searches for some good across the social strata: “Roam through the streets of Jerusalem. Investigate; search in her squares. If you find one person, any who acts justly, who pursues faithfulness, then I will forgive her” (Jeremiah 5:1, CSB). But that search yields zero returns. But he perseveres, “Then I thought: They are just the poor; they have been foolish. For they don’t understand the way of the Lord, the justice of their God. I will go to the powerful and speak to them. Surely they know the way of the Lord, the justice of their God” (Jeremiah 5:4-5, CSB). Again, nothing.

And so, Jeremiah sadly concludes, “I am full of the Lord’s wrath; I am tired of holding it back. Pour it out on the children in the street, on the gathering of young men as well. For both husband and wife will be captured, the old with the very old…For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is making profit dishonestly. From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely” (Jeremiah 6:11-13, CSB).

And so the moral assessment of ancient Judah and modern-day America is the same—universal complicity in sinful exploitation. Perhaps this is why the judgment is extraterrestrial—because our human systems have corrupted us all, placing everyone on the chopping block. This is why Bill (Estévez) rightly speculates an alien invasion must be here to clean up earth before inhabiting it, “Earth is a house: kinda polluted; dirty and smokey…they’re sending interstellar house cleaners…a broom to sweep us right up.” A somber assessment.

But, of course, we can’t forget this is an overtly silly movie, first and foremost. And so we get some really fun things here, like a pre-Lisa Simpson Yeardley Smith playing a newlywed with a foul mouth and a fainting streak; an unmanned biplane swooping down on a child while Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” swells; and a main antagonist truck that has a giant Green Goblin face on the hood whose eyes glow red every time he runs down a new victim.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but read some of this as inherently political—like the military cart with a mounted machine gun honking out in morse code, “SOMEONE MUST PUMP FUEL…THIS WILL BE DONE NOW OR YOU WILL ALL DIE!” There’s a sense that the workers suffering labor exploitation in a cruel consumerist culture will ultimately become cruel consumers and exploiters themselves. Again, the complicity of this cycle is truly universal.

By film’s end, the surviving crew find a way out of the surrounded truck stop through a sewer and make their way, by sailboat, to an island called Haven—safe from the ensuing monster truck rally that demolishes and explodes the diner, utterly whetting our little, capitalist appetites for more destruction. The closing caption has a tongue-in-cheek description of a Russian satellite intercepting and destroying our would-be alien overlords, which means we’ll be left to our own machinations…for now. I’m not sure that bodes well for anyone. And as we say in the south, Lord, have mercy!

5 thoughts on “[Caleb] Exploitation and Complicity in Maximum Overdrive (1986)

  1. This sounds to you like ludicrous science-fiction silliness but this is the future the liberals want. And the sooner American Christians wake up to that fact and heed the gospel’s dispatch the better it will be for our once great nation.

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