Long before Amazon and Facebook turned us all into hermits, shopping malls were our cultural epicentre. Each Saturday teenagers would flock in their legions, hanging out at their favourite arcades or fast food restaurants and marvelling at the colourful array of consumer products that were not yet accessible at the click of a touch pad. Inevitably, these monuments to consumerism became schoolyards away from home, and in an era when Reagan proclaimed that “all great change in America begins at the dinner table,” ghetto blasters and bubblegum could only lead to all out rebellion, right?
Fear not irrational parents of the 1980s, for Park Plaza has a new bastion of shopping centre law enforcement: the Protector 101 series robots, otherwise known as the Killbots. Don’t get too excited. The mid-80s witnessed an explosion in robotic killers, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger’s coldblooded Cyberdyne Systems Series 800 Terminator and Paul Verhoeven’s ultra violent cop-with-a-circuitry-conscience Alex Murphy. In terms of physical presence, the overtly tacky Killbots simply don’t compare. In fact, the mechanical spiders from Michael Crichton’s equally kitsch but played straight techno-thriller Runaway were scarier. Much scarier. But that’s besides the point.
Chopping Mall is a garish roller coaster of ineptly-plotted action, third-rate acting and all-round silliness. Made after the genre had succumbed to the chastening whip of ‘video nasty‘ censorship, director Jim Wynorski serves up a savvy exercise in knowing humour that could charm even the most conservative of horror naysayers, turning to the kind of camp self-awareness that saved the genre from cutting room mediocrity. Filmed in the Sherman Oaks Galleria of Commando and Terminator 2 fame, the film begins with a presentation video displaying the murderous capabilities of the Protector 101 Series. Probably not the smartest approach, and one that does little to assuage the gaggle of mall rats clamouring for answers. One watching citizen isn’t convinced and asks how this tank/toaster hybrid could possibly distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, leading their smug host to assure them that absolutely nothing can go wrong.
And perhaps it wouldn’t have if not for the random flash of lightning that strikes the mall’s control panel, immediately sending the machines doolally. At first glance this might not seem like much of an issue. After all, this isn’t ED-209 we’re dealing with, and the Killbots are more Nintendo‘s R.O.B than Robocop. But don’t let their cheap aesthetics or lack of mobility fool you. These tawdry and highly immobile oddities are brutal, devious and queerly efficient, though the latter quality is mostly due to a deliciously contrived screenplay and the exceedingly vacuous victims it forges. Horror movies are known for their risible characters, but Chopping Mall‘s cast are crying out to be made an example of. One of them practically leaps to their own demise in the kind of kamikaze stunt that would usually demand a retake. Not here. The movie’s budget probably didn’t allow for such extravagances, but it’s unlikely anyone cared. In fact, when it comes to this kind of fare, the sillier the better, and my lord is Chopping Mall silly! I’ve rarely laughed so hard at a horror movie, and I’ve seen some absolute doozies.
When they’re not electrocuting folk to death with the kind of squiggly line SFX that attempt to pass for electricity, the Killbots are actually rather sinister, so deadly that you immediately begin to wonder how they were ever commissioned in the first place, and to what end? For a machine whose sole purpose is to restrain and reprimand, it is certainly surprising that their designers decided to install a plethora of deadly weapons, including razor sharp implements and lasers that with one direct hit can make a human head explode like a watermelon. For a group of teenagers who decide to sneak into the mall after hours for some premarital sex, this superfluous oversight could not have come at a worse time, leading to an overnight showdown of glorious inanity that never fails to leave you awestruck. The Killbots are such a refreshing twist on the standard stalk-and-slash villain. It’s no wonder the movie has garnered such a cult following.
Featuring the kind of melodramatic cast who almost validate the tasteless brand of cynical slaughter Wynorski dishes out, Chopping Mall is an affectionate send-up of the 80s B-movie boom, but instead of fleeing omnipotent maniacs through darkened woods, our skimpily-clad girls have the seemingly straight-forward task of evading clunky hunks of tin metal, and if you’re looking for Alpha male heroics you’re looking in the wrong place. The movie’s resident hunks, a clueless trio that includes The Karate Kid‘s Tony O’Dell and Friday the 13th Part 2‘s Russell Todd, don’t look like they’d last five minutes in a friendly paintball outing, let alone a mechanical death match, and their characters do very little to convince us otherwise. O’Dell, cast here as the bespectacled weakling, is a far cry from his Cobra Kai incarnation, though karate and the Killbots simply do not compute. Not unless you’re looking for a nasty stubbed toe.
Luckily for our resident douchebags, they have resourceful final girl Alison Parks (Kelli Maroney) to fall back on, a cutesy all-American with mammary glands of steel who would land the lead based on the director’s real-life infatuation with her, though she proves the perfect acquisition for a flick of such bonkers aspirations. Chopping Mall is one of those movies that just wouldn’t get made today, the kind that poses very little financial risk and as a consequence benefits from an almost limitless creative canvas. It is contrived, absurd and often laughable, but as a result unique, curious and utterly beguiling.
Featuring one of the best and most misleading promotional posters of the era ― one designed to tap into the ever popular slasher genre ― Chopping Mall is widely regarded as one of the finest low-budget endeavours of the home video era, thanks in no small part to our irresistible tin man antagonists. Not only are the Killbots dubiously designed, they snap their little claws with unabashed glee whenever they dispose of a fresh victim, flaunting the kind of evil mannerisms that allow them a sentient edge. They even have their own cute catchphrase, making them the most acerbic droids this side of The Terminator. “Have a nice day!”
Borrowing more from the action genre than gimmicky one-liners, the second half of the movie is reminiscent of a peak Golan-Globus outing, and a half-decent one at that. As well as the many shoot-outs, explosions and John McClane style vent-crawling, there are stuntmen in ladies wigs running around on fire and a scene in which our newly ferocious protagonists disguise themselves as mannequins, successfully fooling the most advanced robotics technology in the world. This is silly, harebrained fare, but if you’re looking for a nice slice of endearing trash cinema to while away the weekend, then look no further.
Produced by the wife of legendary B-movie mogul Roger Corman, who had a deal in place with distributors Vestron to make a movie set in a mall (the perfect location to entice teenage horror lovers of the mid-1980s), Chopping Mall was shot in three weeks on a budget of $800,000, with Corman himself pulling the strings. According to Wynorski, who landed the role after agreeing to do it on the cheap, the world-famous producer met him for lunch and laid out in no uncertain terms what he had to do to make the movie a success. Wynorski would take notes in a little yellow pad, one that he lives and dies by to this very day.
Now that’s good eating!