Collins’ Crypt: Movies I Love - CHOPPING MALL

The low-budget killer robot movie from Jim Wynorski is... surprisingly charming?

I guess I was a lucky kid, because my maternal grandparents were just as fine with me watching R-rated movies as my parents, so whenever I'd have to stay with them for a few days I'd end up getting to see a few flicks I hadn't been able to catch on my own. It was actually there that I saw Halloween 4 for the first time, and it was my grandfather's copy of Jason Takes Manhattan (he taped pretty much everything on HBO and Cinemax) that allowed for all the repeated viewings that have me convinced - against the protests of nearly everyone in the world - that it's a decent entry. And I vividly recall watching Chopping Mall there with my grandfather, who had already seen it and felt compelled to tell me that a character we think has died is actually going to come back at the end. I think of it every time I watch the movie now, because not only is it just a funny memory, but the wound the character gets is clearly not a fatal one, so even though I was only 7 or 8 I feel dumb for thinking he was really dead.

Alas, my grandfather has since passed away, so he won't be able to enjoy the debut Blu-ray of this underrated and infectiously fun flick (given how many VHS tapes he had, I have little doubt he'd be a fan of the high def format). As any fan can tell you, the existing DVD of the movie that was released in 2004 is hot garbage - it had a few extras, but it was sourced from a full-frame VHS tape and thus looked like crap. While not every cheapo '80s movie can really benefit from a high def release, Chopping Mall definitely deserved better than what it got, and I'm happy to report the spiffy new transfer reveals very few blemishes. You can catch the occasional production shortcut in the sets and props, but everything that counts looks great, and if anything the movie might even get reappraised now that it's been given a respectable home video release. As director Jim Wynorski and his crew were able to shoot in an actual mall (at the peak of the '80s, no less), they scored tons of free production value, allowing them to put the budget into hiring better actors than Wynorski would ever get again, and, most importantly, highlighting the genuinely impressive killer robots that were created for the film. It's what I call a "B+ movie", where the people knew that they weren't making high art and yet gave it their all and made sure that above all else the audience had fun, sans the irony that propels Birdemic or whatever into the mainstream. 

As this was a Roger Corman production, you could be forgiven for assuming the effects would be cheesy and everything would need to be faked, but that's not the case here - Wynorski's time-saving long takes actually have a huge benefit in that we can plainly see the robots really could roll along, back up, turn, etc. There's a bit late in the film where one gets into an elevator and has to turn itself around, and it's legitimately impressive to see it in action. Sure, the little guys couldn't really pull off some of the more specific actions, so those would be faked (we'd see closeups of their claw-like arms doing something to a victim without the rest of the robot in the frame), but I'm far more impressed by what they COULD do than disappointed by what they couldn't. They even managed to work a little bit of personality into each one of them (one's like a Clint Eastwood cowboy, another is like Joe Friday from Dragnet), which is a lot more than you can expect from the antagonists in anything Wynorski or Corman does for the Syfy channel. Add in the explosions and (yes!) laser battles, all within the aforementioned real mall, and you might have the only movie either man has made in the past 30 years that actually lives up to the promise of its plot description.

But the robots and production design aren't the only things worth lauding here - the characters are a genuinely enjoyable group of people, and the script (by Wynorski and Steve Mitchell) wisely doesn't make it too obvious who will be offed first. Sure, we know Kelli Maroney is the Final Girl because she just wants to hang out and watch a movie with the guy her friends set her up with while everyone else has sex, but it's impossible to guess who'll die first, second, etc. I particularly liked how long Russell Todd lasted - he's pretty much the first to go in Friday the 13th Part 2 (he played Scott, the guy with the terrific slingshot aim), but he proves to be more resilient here, not only lasting quite a while but dying a hero's death, taking out one of the "Killbots" (the movie's original title) along with him when he goes to horror movie heaven. And with Barbara Crampton having already become horror royalty thanks to Re-Animator, you might assume she lasts LONGER than she does, making her relatively early exit all the more shocking (it's also kind of a grim death in the otherwise fairly light film). 

And even if they were all played by no-names, the script thankfully makes them largely likable and believable as friends. The presence of killer robots instead of a masked madman kind of throws it off a bit, but the movie is essentially a typical body count slasher (indeed, the original pitch was a killer in a mall - Wynorski pushed to make it robots), and this was already past the golden era of slashers, when the characters started getting more insufferable. So it wouldn't be a surprise if they were all obnoxious assholes you couldn't wait to see offed, but the obligatory douche guy is the first to go; a stark contrast to today's slashers, where such characters tend to survive a while because they're just so "funny" and the filmmakers (wrongly) assume by delaying his death that it will be even more satisfying when it comes. Plus the threat is discovered shortly after that, leaving no time for the characters to sit around yelling at each other - they snap into action and surprisingly go on the offensive rather quickly. I have a little trouble buying the idea that a mall gunstore ("Peckinpah's", heh) would have assault rifles and shotguns just sitting there on the shelf, but if you're gonna call out Chopping Mall for this you'd have to levy the same complaint at Dawn of the Dead, so it's best to just go with it and enjoy the site of the male heroes (all employees of a furniture store, no less), arming up and walking down a corridor to a riff that's an admitted homage to "Ecstasy of Gold". 

It's also fairly fast paced, another thing that's not a guarantee with any of the people involved. It runs under 80 minutes but wastes precious few of them; the Killbots are introduced in the first scene (complete with hilarious cameos from Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov as their Eating Raoul characters) and they go haywire I think ten minutes later thanks to that old standby - something gets hit by electricity and causes chaos. The movie's not even half over by the time everyone is aware of their impending demises (and there have been scattered deaths until that point), and I think they only stop running/fighting back once for the rest of the movie. They get their guns, they rig explosives, they engage in shootouts with the 'bots... it's closer to an action movie than horror, actually. Indeed, if there's a complaint you can make, it's that it doesn't offer any "chopping", as most of the characters die by gunfire, electrocution, or immolation - it's fairly blood-free. Granted, the title wasn't Chopping Mall to begin with so you can't fault the movie for not living up to it, but the poster art doubled down by showing a giant shopping bag filled with bloodied body parts. I wouldn't have minded a little more variety in the kills, but like the gun store thing, it's hard to complain when everything is so on point.

It's literally impossible to complain about the Blu-ray, however - with three commentaries, an isolated music track, and several featurettes (including the bonus material created for the previous DVD), it will take like 7-8 hours for you to get through the entire thing, which I find delightful for a 30 year old movie that cost under a million bucks and was barely given a theatrical release. You can skip the older commentary with Wynorski and Mitchell since they come back for the new one (and tell many of the same stories) and bring Kelli Maroney along this time, and while it's not particularly insightful about Chopping Mall itself, the "historian" track with Ryan Turek and Nathaniel Thompson is an engaging discussion of the era's output in general, how things have changed in both how these sort of movies are received and how we watch them (the movie actually got theatrical releases, however minor, with both titles - nowadays there's no way in hell it would go anywhere but VOD). There is a half hour retrospective with most of the cast on hand, all of whom thankfully know exactly what kind of movie it is while rightfully remaining proud of it. The shorter featurettes are also all good, including a look at the editing (always a nice but sadly rare bonus feature) and the creation of the robots, plus a chat with the composer (that score is pretty damn catchy). Much like Blood Rage, this is the kind of movie fans would be happy to just have on disc with a proper transfer, so seeing them go all out is wonderful.

Also wonderful: it's the first (along with Blood Diner) of a new line of Vestron blu-rays! Vestron is one of the many '80s distributors folks of my generation remember fondly, and their library was usurped by Lionsgate at one point or another. Most of the titles have come to DVD in transfers similar to that of the old Chopping Mall DVD (i.e. they're awful), but they're giving proper treatment to six oft-requested titles, and I can only assume if the line sells well they'll continue to do more. After these two we can look forward to Waxwork and its sequel, Return of the Living Dead 3 (yes!) and, er, CHUD 2: Bud the Chud. Look, I practically yelled at Scream Factory to put out Shocker, so I can't judge anyone who might inexplicably be excited for that one I guess. The discs' MSRP is a bit steep at $39.99; granted they are offering plenty of content in exchange, but hopefully Amazon and their ilk keep those prices a bit lower if they want to keep this line going. And hopefully they will extend beyond specifically Vestron titles; I would love to see Silent Night Deadly Night 3-5 get properly restored (currently only available in a triple feature set with VHS transfers - and yes it's from Lionsgate), and I'm sure there are others in their expansive library as LG tends to absorb lots of those older small distributors we associate with our VHS youth.

Granted, a lot of the movies I saw as a kid are probably garbage and benefit from my nostalgia, but I don't think Chopping Mall qualifies for that category. For starters, I only saw it once or twice as a kid and not again until maybe 2006 or so, so it's not like something I grew up with and had dozens of viewings (like, er, Jason Takes Manhattan and Shocker) - I barely remembered anything when I saw it again as an adult. But the things I like about it at 36 aren't even the things I would have even noticed as a kid - the in-jokes, the ability to keep their low budget from being an issue by scoring a terrific location and a talented mechanical engineer, and the fact that I didn't want to root for the robots. Young me was probably just excited to see a pair of naked breasts and talking robots. There are certainly a number of movies from this era that aren't as good as your adolescent memory, but Chopping Mall? I honestly think it might be better than my 7 year old self could have realized. 

(Please note - the stills accompanying this piece are NOT from the Blu, but from the old DVD. Newer stills were not made available yet. Trust me, it looks great!)