Thursday, October 9, 2008

Chopping Mall (1986)


So, there's this mall. And it has a robot security system, which are sort of like those automatic vacuum cleaner-bots except they shoot lasers! Anyway, these things are fool-proof, until the mall gets hit by lightning turning them into KILLBOTS (Chopping Mall's original release title). Eight teenagers (including Barbara Crampton from Re-Animator, and Tony O'Dell from, uh, Head Of The Class) are having a late night party and start to get picked off one by one by these metallic monsters, until they arm themselves with supplies from the mall and attempt to get some revenge. The whole thing takes 77 minutes, which is just long enough.


It's difficult to be too critical of a film like Chopping Mall, since it has such modest goals. It's essentially a dead teenager slasher film with Short Circuit-like robots, and (despite a general lack of suspense) it delivers on that front. Lots of teens getting naked and having sex, and a reasonable amount of gore with a few cameos from the Roger Corman crew for cult-credibility. And at less than 80 minutes it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Its gains are still rather meager, however, and doesn't serve to separate the film greatly from the hundreds of similar films released at the time. Because of the strangely short running time, the pacing seems a bit off and we're faced with a semi-climactic battle taking place 45 minutes in. With things moving forward this quickly character development tends to take a back-seat.

The robots themselves are quite impressive for such a low budget feature, and the director Jim Wynorski (director of too many films to mention) speaks highly of their maneuvering ability on the commentary. They have arms with clamps on the end that they raise threateningly, as well as the ability to shoot darts and (the considerably more effective) laser beams. Some effort is made to give the killbots a measure of personality, though it sometimes serves to make the main cast appear even more bland.

The in-jokes are fun, with appearances from Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov (reprising their roles from the cult classic Eating Raoul), Dick Miller (reprising his role from A Bucket Of Blood), Mel Welles (Attack Of The Crab Monsters), and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance from Angus Scrimm (Phantasm). Wynorski also throws in shots of his own movie posters because.. heck, why not?

The shopping mall location (Sherman Oaks Galleria, used in Commando!), brings unfortunate comparisons to Dawn Of The Dead, though if there's any subtext in this about our consumer culture, it's well hidden. The setting is used to good effect, though, with some well executed fire stunts and explosions.

The gore in the film is minimal, though the famous head explosion really does look quite outstanding. The filmmakers obviously realized this, since they put the shot in the trailer. Mostly the effect seems a bit out of place, however, as the film relies more on its rapid pace than extreme violence.

Chopping Mall has been difficult to track down on VHS for years, so it's nice that a few features were included on the long awaited DVD. Unfortunately, the film is presented in a rather rough looking full screen transfer that is only marginally better than a good home video copy. Sound is adequate, with the synth-heavy score (by B-movie music regular Chuck Cirino) coming through loud and clear.

The commentary by Jim Wynorski and (producer/writer) Steve Mitchell is a lot of fun, with them not being afraid to poke a little fun at their film while still remaining very complimentary about their cast and crew. There's plenty of great stories about working with Roger Corman (and his wife), and the two men have a strong memory for details which make them a pleasure to listen to.

We're also treated to a short featurette Chopping Mall: Creating The Killbots which focuses on the efforts of special effects man Robert Short to bring the killer robots to life. There's a good deal of information repeated from the commentary, but the added perspective of Short keeps things interesting.

The original trailer (/w head explosion) and a photo gallery (/w original poster calling the film Killbots) round out the special features.

Chopping Mall is a disposable example of 80s schlock, rising slightly above average thanks to a novel concept and decent production values. A lurid cover and appearances from cult faves have given it a strong reputation, but it does little to distinguish itself from the bloated genre.

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