Reviews

Killbots

Jim Wynorski

USA, 1986

Credits

Review by Leo Goldsmith

Posted on 16 October 2008

Source Lightning Video VHS

Categories 31 Days of Horror V

Gothic houses, haunted castles, ancient burial grounds—these are all tried-and-true, if somewhat shop-worn, settings for horror films. And to credit its originality, Chopping Mall eschews all of these more conventional milieux, choosing instead to mine the horrific potential of the mid-1980s American shopping mall. Of course, on deeper consideration, there is much to dread amongst the ghoulish escalators and dreary indoor-outdoor carpeting of the mall: overpriced CDs, loitering teenagers, buttery pretzels, rubber ficus, American Eagle.

Having avoided malls for about a decade – due to a general preference for reality and nature, if not because of utter, blood-curdling terror – there’s something uncanny about revisiting this sort of climate-controlled, skylit consumer’s paradise in the context of a 1986 horror movie. On the one hand, this is because the mall in the film – the Sherman Oaks Galleria, according to the credits (which, yes, I read in their entirety) – resembles every other mall I’ve ever been to in almost every aspect of layout, architecture, and odium, essentially resembling a preserved, post-apocalyptic city-of-the-future where all amenities are provided and from which there is no escape, like something out of Logan’s Run. On the other, this is because it gives me new, unexpected reasons to never want to go to another mall ever again: killer robots.

As is common in such films, these killer robots are, at the outset of the movie, friendly killer robots. These “Protectors,” numbered one to three, are designed to do three things: watch over the goods in the stores at the Park Plaza Mall; ensnare and/or (gently) electrocute anyone who tries to interfere with these goods; and politely thank everyone and tell them to have a nice day. These simple tasks – which could not possibly be perverted by any kind of malfunction whatsoever, least of all one caused by anything so unlikely and unforeseeable as, say, a lightning storm – are demonstrated in the opening minutes of the film in the clever form of an instructional movie. This film within a film, screened for the mall’s shop-owners, occasions the appearance of the two film’s special guest stars, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov of the “hit” Eating Raoul, here apparently playing restauranteurs. Though I’m not at all sure their presence in the film would inspire me (or anyone, really) to rent such a film, Bartel and Woronov are at least funny for their two-plus minutes of screentime, during which they make derisive comments about the robots (one looks “ethnic,” Bartel sneers) and their rather violent demeanor.

Conspicuously absent among Bartel and Woronov’s criticisms is the simple observation that, because the mall is totally barricaded at night, thus preventing anyone from getting either or in or out of the facility, such killer robots, however friendly, are probably unnecessary. Another flaw in the mall’s security system – aside from that inability to account for lightning – is the failure to realize that Barbara Crampton of Re-Animator, some guy who was in The Karate Kid, some other guy who was in Friday the 13th, and a few of their friends work in the mall and, being horny teenagers, will naturally want to stay after hours to drink beer and fuck.

You see where this going: The friendly killer robots malfunction and become unfriendly, wantonly stabbing and electrocuting people, while the horny teenagers party in the bedding store and try to develop sympathetic characters before dying. There’s Mike, a shit-eating, gum-chewing jock and his large-breasted girlfriend, Leslie; the preppie-vanilla Greg and Suzie (this is Crampton, being very whiny); Linda and Rick, who know something about cars; and two nerds, Allison and Ferdie1, who are just getting to know one another. One of the pleasures of Chopping Mall, after all the boob scenes are over, is that it’s actually the two nerd characters who emerge as the heroes, hence the amount of screentime the film spends on their adorable, nudity-free meet-cute.

And with that barely adequate premise in place, the robots – whose design is an exact 50-50 mash-up of that of Forbidden Planet’s Robbie and Short Circuit’s Number Five – start killing people, first slashing Mike’s throat, then shooting Leslie in the ass and blowing up her head with a laser. Thus, the horny teenagers’ party ends and their fight for survival begins. Thankfully, among the mall’s resources is a shop cutely named Peckinpah’s Sporting Goods where the boys find lots and lots of guns—prompting the ass-kicking line, “Let’s go send those fuckers a Rambogram.” None of these proves especially useful – nor do the gas cans that girls collect and attempt to use as improvised Molotov cocktails – which means that most everybody dies by the time Protectors 1, 2, and 3 are finally dispatched.

To be sure, the film has its commendable aspects, including dialogue whose wit, while not up to the level of something like Revenge of the Nerds, is at least knowingly so. (“It’s OK—it’s not you, Ferdie. I guess I’m just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.”) There are also a couple of big explosions and action set-pieces – vaguely reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s contemporary shenanigans in another SoCal shopping mall in Commando – that are notable for being exciting while not appearing to do any lasting damage to the location. Perhaps best of all is the electronic geek-pop score that runs throughout the film, evocative of, if not actually as good as, bands like Devo and myriad soundtracks to other movies of the time.

What’s perhaps most disappointing about Chopping Mall is not the film itself – which is just a tongue-in-cheek teen-sex comedy that tries on bargain-rate aspects of sci-fi, action, and horror – but its failure to live up to one of the great examples of 1980s VHS cover artwork there is: a bloody, dismembered foot, fingers, hand, nose (?), eyeball, ear, and face (still screaming!) fill a red shopping bag – held up by a menacing robot hand – with gore, and above this the tagline, “Where shopping can cost you an arm and a leg.” From watching the film, it seems painfully clear that this design was created after the fact, perhaps by greater creative minds than the film itself. No dismemberment occurs in the film – nor even any chopping that I could tell – essentially squandering what I remember to be, as a young video renter, one of the most terrifying video covers ever.


  1. “Ferdie” is, in all honesty, a guess. There’s no character listing in the credits, so this was difficult to confirm without fun-spoiling recourse to the Internet. Birdie or Bernie are also possibilities, but my knowledge of 1980s teen movies tells me that any nerd character must be given a dumb, old-fashioned-sounding name which cannot be easily shortened so as to be made to sound cool. In this case, it’s Ferdinand.

Information from VHS Sleeve

Chopping Mall

Year
1986

Run Time
77 minutes

Director
Jim Wynorski

VHS Distributor
Lightning Video

Relevant Cast
Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller

Relevant Crew
Julie Corman

Tag Line
Where shopping can cost you an arm and a leg.

Rating
R

Clamshell?
No

Quote
[none]

Masterpiece?
No

More 31 Days of Horror V

We don’t do comments anymore, but you may contact us here or find us on Twitter or Facebook.