How a Stephen King Movie Flop Actually Revived AC/DC’s Career in The Mid-80s

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Jacket design by Neil StuartIllustration on front of jacket by Bob GiustiHand-lettering by Tony DiSpignaPhoto by Andrew Unangst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Harry (Howard) Potts, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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When the maestro of horror fiction Stephen King briefly shifted his focus from writing books to directing movies, the result was less than spectacular with critics.

Based on his short story “Trucks,” Maximum Overdrive is a 98-minute campy spectacle about malevolent machines running amok due to the effects of a comet. As a group of survivors huddle in a truck stop, only Emilio Estevez has the brains and the balls to save the day… or something.

The film was a critical trainwreck and currently holds a dismal 15% on Rotten Tomatoes. While audience scores are slightly more forgiving at 50%, it’s still a far cry from acclaim. Reflecting on that time in the 2003 book Hollywood Stephen King, the author doesn’t attribute the film’s failure to his inexperience as a director. 

“The problem with that film,” he said, “is that I was coked out of my mind all through its production, and I really didn’t know what I was doing.”

Maximum Overdrive might not have been great for its director, but the film brought an unexpected twist to the long story of one legendary Australian rock band. 

By 1986, AC/DC was in need of fresh creative juice. Having experienced enormous success in the late ’70s with their breakthrough Highway to Hell, their survival in the face of tragedy saw the band grow inexplicably bigger with Back in Black. After that tremendous run, albums like Flick of the Switch and Fly on the Wall were uninspired duds filled with filler tracks. 

Once known for their remarkable albums, AC/DC were now seen as a singles band. Little did they know, Stephen King was about to come to the rescue. A fervent AC/DC fan, he passionately wanted them to score Maximum Overdrive. The legend goes that he sought out the band and sang their track “Ain’t No Fun Waiting Round to Be a Millionaire” in its entirety. Moved by the author’s enthusiasm, the Aussies agreed to score the film.

Known for their refusal to repackage their old material, AC/DC made a unique compromise for the movie’s soundtrack. Alongside six previously-released tracks including “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Hells Bells,” they introduced two new instrumentals, “D.T.” and “Chase The Ace.”

Additionally, the band penned the movie’s theme song, “Who Made Who,” which played alongside a cameo appearance by Stephen King being called an asshole by an ATM at the beginning of the movie.

The resulting album, Who Made Who, was a game-changer for AC/DC; reaching number 33 in the US and number 11 in the UK.

In a fascinating, coked-up slice of history, a grainy video shows Stephen King interviewing AC/DC members Brian Johnson, Angus Young, and Cliff Williams for MTV. Angus Young described the challenge of synchronizing the music with film clips, while Brian Johnson mentioned the excitement of watching the “spooky bits.”

It being 1986 and Stephen King being Stephen King, the author repeatedly mentions that he’d never directed a film before. I wonder why…

Maximum Overdrive might have been Stephen King’s final directorial effort, but his cinematic journey was far from over. He has remained clean and sober for over three decades, and his stories have continued to inspire mesmerizing film adaptations.

For what it’s worth, history has been kind to Maximum Overdrive. Free from the burden of expectations, the film now carries a nostalgic charm and has developed a “so bad it’s good” cult reputation.