Chopping Mall (aka Killbots)

Director: Jim Wynorski
Screenplay: Jim Wynorski & Steve Mitchell
Stars: Kelli Maroney (Alison Parks), Tony O’Dell (Ferdy Meisel), Russell Todd (Rick Stanton), Karrie Emerson (Linda Stanton), Barbara Crampton (Suzie Lynn), Nick Segal (Greg Williams), John Terlesky (Mike Brennan), Suzee Slater (Leslie Todd), Paul Bartel (Paul Bland), Mary Woronov (Mary Bland), Dick Miller (Walter Paisley), Gerrit Graham (Technician Nessler), Mel Welles (Cook)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1986
Country: U.S.
Chopping Mall Blu-ray
Chopping MallLet’s start with the title—Chopping Mall. So simple. So absurd. So fantastic. It was the mid-1980s and shopping malls were all the rage, so using one as the setting for a sci-fi/horror romp featuring berserk, homicidal security robots with laser guns and killer clampers slaughtering a gaggle of horny twentysomethings after hours seems like a no-brainer in hindsight. Of course, malls had been prominently featured in a handful of horror movies before, most notably George A. Romero’s brilliantly gruesome Dawn of the Dead (1978), but there is something particularly pure and distilled about Chopping Mall. Its no-fills exploitation ethos is infectious, and you can’t help but admire its economy, even if that fantastic title is just a tad misleading (no one actually gets “chopped,” per se, although some throats get ripped and one poor girl’s head is eviscerated).

Now let’s turn to the poster art. A few years ago I wrote about Ken Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves (1977), a low-budget horror thriller about Nazi zombies whose videocassette case was omnipresent in the horror section of any and all video outlets in the 1980s. Even if you never actually saw the movie you felt like you had, and the same could be said for Chopping Mall, which has similarly iconic, although slyly misleading, cover art that was pretty much everywhere at the time. A metallic hand, which looks nothing like the simplistic open-and-shut clampers the robots have in the film, holds out as if for our inspection a red shopping bag that is filled with dismembered body parts, some of which can be seen poking out of the top of the bag (a nose, a foot, an ear, an eyeball) and some of which can be seen through several tears in the front of the bag (a hand, a woman’s face frozen in a scream). It is an image that is simultaneously gruesome and silly, threatening and amusing, and while it conveys nothing literal in the film (again, no one is really “chopped,” as it were), it captures its absurdist energy with perfectly pitched precision.

And that brings us to the film itself, which, like Shock Waves, doesn’t quite live up to its fantastic title and instantly memorable poster art, but is nevertheless a diverting good time for those who appreciate low-budget ingenuity and a guilt-free willingness to revel in the cinema’s baser instincts. Written by director Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell (who also did second unit direction), Chopping Mall moves through its simple narrative with brisk efficiency, pausing just long enough to drop in some wink-wink jokes and cameos before taking off again. The movie opens by introducing a California mall’s new security team: three robotic guards who look like more menacing versions of the goofy Number Five from Short Circuit (1987). Running on triangular treads and featuring a “face” dominated by a glowing red visor, the three tank-like robot guards go haywire when their computer system is struck by lightning, deploying their arsenal of lethal weaponry (who thought that outfitting them with lasers was a good idea?) to massacre the aforementioned young people, who are spending the night in the mall’s furniture store because, well, it offers a lot of beds.

Wynorski and Mitchell give us a typical cross-section of attractive young victims boasting all manner of feathered bangs, mullets, and hard bodies: good girl Alison (Kelli Maroney, Night of the Comet), who is talked into going to the party by Suzie (Barbara Crampton, Re-Animator), her more libidinous coworker at the mall’s Italian restaurant. Alison is being set up with Ferdy (Tony O’Dell), the bespectacled nerd whose uncle owns the furniture store. He works with Rick (Russell Todd) and Greg (Nick Segal), standard-issue lotharios who can’t wait to get it on with their girlfriends, which, of course, they do. There are a few other peripheral characters, as well, including Roger Corman regular Dick Miller reprising his role from A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov reprising their roles from the cult favorite Eating Raoul (1982). Wynorski throws in a bunch of other in-jokes, as well, such as naming the mall’s sporting goods store Peckinpah’s and a pet store Roger’s Little Shop of Pets (if you don’t immediately get those gags, this probably isn’t a movie for you).

Chopping Mall was Wynorski’s second directorial effort, and it launched his career as a prolific exploitation filmmaker who has since churned out dozens and dozens of low-budget efforts in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and soft-core porn (the latter of which, unfortunately, has all but dominated the last 15 years of his career). No one will accuse him of being a Russ Meyer-like cinematic genius working in the cinema’s more disreputable corners, but he certainly knows how to tell a lean story with just enough flourish that you feel like you’ve seen more than you actually have. The fact that the would-be victims actually fight back with everything at their disposal (including handguns, semi-automatic rifles, and cans of gasoline turned into massive Molotov cocktails) helps distinguish Chopping Mall from so many run-of-the-mill slasher films and infuse it with hints of an action movie. Propelled by a pulsating electronic score, Chopping Mall leans heavily on its spacious, multi-level location (the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles, which was used a year later for a sequence in the Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle Commando) and the surprisingly convincing nature of the robotic killers (the film’s original title was Killbots, which is amusing and more accurate than Chopping Mall, but not nearly as memorable). The movie is never scary, but it was never meant to be, either. It’s really more of a knowingly absurd sci-fi farce with a body count, and on that level it works quite marvelously.

Chopping Mall Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English, French, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by director/co-writer Jim Wynorski, actress Kelli Maroney, and co-writer/second unit director Steve Mitchell
  • Audio commentary by historians/authors Nathaniel Thompson and Ryan Turek
  • Audio commentary by director/co-writer Jim Wynorski and co-writer/second unit director Steve Mitchell
  • “Back to the Mall” featurette
  • “Chopping Chopping Mall” featurette
  • “Talkin’ About … the Killbots” featurette
  • “Scoring Chopping Mall” featurette
  • “The Robot Speaks” featurette
  • “The Lost Scene” featurette
  • “Army of One” featurette
  • Chopping Mall : Creating the Killbots” featurette
  • Isolated score track by Chuck Cirino
  • Trailer
  • DistributorLionsgate
    Release DateSeptember 27, 2016

    There was no small amount of consternation among fans when Chopping Mall was released on DVD in 2004 and it was discovered that, due to legal issues involving the original negative, the disc used the same transfer that was originally made for the VHS release in the late 1980s. So much for progress. Those legal issues have since been resolved, as Lionsgate’s new Blu-ray, which is one of the first releases under their wonderfully nostalgic “Vestron Video Collector’s Series” label, boasts a brand-new 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of the original negative supervised by Jim Wynorski, and it looks fantastic. In fact, long-time viewers of the film may have to adjust their perception as the days of a soft, slightly murky, faded VHS-quality image has been replaced by one that is sharp, well-defined, and nicely detailed. The film’s low-budget nature is certainly apparent, but you will probably gain a greater appreciation for Tom Richmond’s cinematography, which boasts bright colors, strong contrast, and good use of shadow. There are few if any signs of wear and tear, which suggests that the negative was in good shape and some digital restoration was performed. Chuck Cirino’s groovy electronic score (which is also available on an isolated track) is presented in all its original monaural glory in DTS-HD Master Audio. There is obviously limitation in terms of scope and directionality, and one could imagine what a well-done 5.1-channel remix might accomplish with all the lasers and gunfire, but when the film looks and sounds as good (if not better) than it did during its brief theatrical run in 1986, it’s hard to complain.
    Not only has Lionsgate significantly improved the film’s audio-visual presentation, they have also loaded this release with the kind of supplements that will tickle long-time fans while hopefully winning over a few new ones. First there is not one, not two, but three audio commentaries: a new one by director/co-writer Jim Wynorski, actress Kelli Maroney, and co-writer/second unit director Steve Mitchell; a new one by Nathaniel Thompson, author of the multi-volume DVD Delirium: The International Guide to Weird and Wonderful Films on DVD, and Ryan Turek, a horror journalist-turned-director of development at Blumhouse Productions; and a 2004 track by Wynorski and Mitchell that has been recycled from the earlier DVD release. The first and third tracks are obviously focused on the production itself and all the attendant anecdotes, while the second is more of a historical and analytical look at the film and its place in exploitation cinema. All three are definitely worth a listen. There are also eight featurettes that include interviews with most of the film’s major contributors, including Wynorski and Mitchell; stars Kelly Maroney, Barbara Crampton, Russell Todd, Nick Segal, and John Terlesky; composer Chuck Cirino; robot creator Robert Short; and editor Leslie Rosenthal. “Back to the Mall” (27 min.) is a general retrospective overview of the film’s production and reception; “Chopping Chopping Mall” (9 min.) looks at the film’s editing; “Talkin’ About … the Killbots” (12 min.) and “Chopping Mall: Creating the Killbots” (15 min.) both look at the design and building of the robots (the second is actually an older featurette from the original DVD release); and “Scoring Chopping Mall” (11 min.) looks at the film’s musical score. “The Robot Speaks” (2 min.) is a silly bit in which the security robots answer 10 questions, while the “The Lost Scene” allows you to read the script pages for a scene featuring Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov’s characters that was never shot. “Army of One” (6 min.) gives us an interview with Carl Sampieri, the film’s self-professed biggest fan. Also included is the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Lionsgate

    Overall Rating: (3)

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