In many classic horror movies, the actual horror component derives from the protagonist’s and viewer’s fear of the unknown. For example, in Ridley Scott’s Alien, no one had encountered the titular life-form before, and the crew is clueless as to what it’s actually capable of. No one could have guessed its dinner-ruining abilities, so it comes as a real shock when John Hurt starts to feel a little under the weather.
With 1986’s Chopping Mall (aka Killbots), writer/director (and voice talent) Jim Wynorski doesn’t worry about such tease and shock tactics. Right from the word go, the horror is clearly going to be derived from robots-with-frickin’-lasers-on-their-heads. It’s all laid out beautifully and right to the point.
In an unnamed American mall, the management has just installed a new security system involving robots and giant steel doors. Meanwhile, a group of randy youngsters have decided to stay after hours and party ’till dawn. What they don’t realize, though, is that a bolt of lightening has just hit the mall – causing the robots to go rogue and attack anything that moves. You know, because they gotta protect all that important mall shit AT ALL COSTS.
As the flat-headed menaces stalk and, yes, kill their fleshy teen enemies, you will undoubtedly watch in awe. Particularly during a rather awesome head exploding scene, surely the holy grail of horror since Cronenberg walked onto the set of Scanners and uttered the words “You know what would be cool, eh?”
The robots themselves look like a cross between Cyclops from the X-Men and a rolling version of that teleportation chamber Jeff Goldblum invented in The Fly. Though less eccentric fans of the film have compared them to Johnny Five from Short Circuit (a movie which, not for nothing, came out one year earlier).
Really, more than anything, the Killbots are a cinematic prelude to the ED-209, from Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. Both are security measures prone to malfunction, both are peacekeeping agents with lethal tendencies, both warn their victims in calm robotized voices (although the Killbots, hilariously, have Long Island accents, voiced as they are by the film’s director).
This isn’t to suggest that RoboCop was influenced by Chopping Mall, but it might be safe to say that malls in the 1980’s were clearly the locations of an under-reported crime wave that seems to have necessitated the implementation of murder-prone robot enforcers.
The fact that it’s obviously shot in a real mall adds immensely to the film’s strength as well. The store signs are real (there’s even a McDonald’s), and the movie theater is showing real movies (Krush Groove!). The mall in question is the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which you may know from its roles in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Commando, Terminator 2, and Innerspace.
The kids under attack are a mixed bag of forgettable and awesome. The cast includes Kelli Maroney (Night Of The Comet, a sweet movie in its own right), Tony O’Dell (TV’s Head Of The Class), John Terlesky (the Deathstalker in Deathstalker 2), Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator and From Beyond), and a young lady named Suzee Slater, who somewhat heroically pulls double-duty by providing most of the movie’s best T&A and also providing the movie’s single best death scene (the aforementioned head-explosion).
Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov share a cameo as their characters from Eating Raoul, Paul and Mary Bland. Chopping Mall was also the debut film for Rodney Eastman, who later went on to star as Joey in A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.
Though the film’s title is perhaps a little misleading (nobody does, in fact, get chopped), Chopping Mall delivers exactly what it promises. As stated before, the filmmakers don’t concern themselves with things like exposition or character development, choosing instead to get to the killing almost immediately. And at a running time of around 75 minutes, the film never has the chance to become boring – although there’s no denying that the story is awfully repetitive (guy or girl goes running from killer robot, dies, next guy or girl goes running from killer robot, dies, etc).
Overall, Chopping Mall is as cheesy as you would think it would be from the title – but also very smart. It has a fun ’80s vibe to accompany its light-hearted tone. The action is on point and the likable characters are very proactive in their situation, which is always a plus. The film’s far from perfect, but it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun.
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