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Horror Reviews - Chopping Mall (1986)

Chopping Mall (1986)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-10-19 19:45
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Chopping Mall (1986)
Studio: Vestron Home Video
Release date: September 27th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)





The movie:

If at first you don’t succeed, repackage your film with a new title to capitalize on a trend. Originally released to theaters as Killbots in 1986, Chopping Mall was poorly received until producer Roger Corman decided to chop over ten minutes from its runtime and re-brand it as more of a straightforward teenage slasher flick. The result is a familiar body count movie with an outrageous wrinkle: instead of being stalked in a mall by some masked maniac, the kids here are hunted down by killer security robots who have replaced the typical rent-a-cops for the night watch.

When the robotic security force is first introduced during a sales pitch, the a spokesman ensures his audience that “absolutely nothing can go wrong,” which only guarantees that things will go incredibly wrong. They do when a freak lightning storm damages the central computer controlling the killbots and effectively rewires their programming. After killing their technicians and a janitor (Dick Miller, delightful as always in the role of Walter Paisley), the robots descend upon what should be an empty mall. However, a bunch of teenage employees have decided to shack up there for the night and throw a party that’s about to be crashed.

Only the 80s could produce something this gleefully excessive and stupid; I’d like to think this was a cheeky reflection of Reagan’s enormous defense budget, but the central concept is wonderfully absurd all the same. Either this mall is dealing with rampant criminal activity or simply has money to burn on militant robots because they can. That an unlucky bolt of lightning can cause them to go haywire might be easier to swallow. With Corman and frequent collaborator Jim Wynorski in tow, you can rest assured that they get it, so Chopping Mall is an appropriately silly entry in the Corman canon, one that’s thoroughly doused in B-movie irreverence. The opening scene reunites Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in their Eating Raoul roles, and the rest of the movie is lined with references and call-backs in the form of movie posters and late night monster movies (Corman’s own Attack of Crab Monsters entertains two of the teens at one point).

Armed with killer dialogue (“let's send these fuckers a Rambo-gram!”) and gore to spare, Chopping Mall is also a pretty decent entry in the slasher cycle. Typically, slashers excel when they aren’t played straight, and this one is about as crooked as they come without (rightfully) refusing to plunge right into parody. Even though the killbots move with all the speed of an actual mall security guard and would have time completely patrolling the cavernous mall, its victims are scared shitless but not witless, as there’s a choice barb for almost every encounter. The killbots themselves are armed not only with debilitating tasers, but also laser canons (presumably in the event that the mall was invaded by an army, Red Dawn-style), so the threat ends up being pretty real, especially when it starts lighting the kids on fire and blowing their heads off in two of the film’s more memorable scenes. Forget mall security, these bad boys should have been on the frontlines during the various Cold War skirmishes.

Chopping Mall is another reflection of the 80s’ infatuation with robots, of course--the concept is kind of like The Terminator meets Short Circuit, and it’s even a slight precursor to Robocop (the killbots’ “thank you, have a nice day” refrain is similar to Murphy’s “thank you for your cooperation”). Anyway, I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone figured out a way to make a slasher out of this sort of thing, however roundabout a course Corman and company took to get it there. It seems odd that the film wouldn’t be marketed as a typical slasher the first time about, and I wonder just how different the film was in its original form (presumably, Angus Scrimm would have actually been in the film more, whereas he barely appears here). Maybe it’s best not to know since slashers are also usually at their best when they strike with razor precision like Chopping Mall, which clocks in at an agreeable 77 minutes, including the humorous credits, which are not to be skipped.

While it’s hard to be sure given his massive filmography (which has now ballooned to 100 movies), Chopping Mall is among Wynorski’s best work as a director. The film is obviously low budget and confined to one single location, but Wynorski stretches it all pretty admirably, as there are some impressive action sequences and even some nice stuntwork (one guy takes a massive spill that results in a nice, gory thud). Speaking of the 80s, his cast is composed of familiar faces from the decade’s cult scene like Barbara Crampton, Russell Todd, Karnie Emerson, Rodney Eastman, and more, most of whom are decked out with big hair, skimpy clothes, and appropriately juvenile attitudes. The bunch is eventually (and predictably) chopped down to the most affable duo, a couple of wallflowers named Ferdy (Tony O’Dell, in a complete reversal of his douche chills inducing Cobra Kai role) and Allison (Kelli Maroney). It’s a fun collection of talent for a fun movie, which is also loaded with the other Wynorski staples--blood and nudity, both of which are in rather ample supply between the exploding heads and gratuitous stripteases.

A remake for Chopping Mall has been long-threatened, and, while it’ll no doubt have a bigger budget and more resources, it might have a tough time replicating the charm of the original. I imagine the robots will be more impressive, but I hope whoever’s in charge resists the urge to turn them into androids or cyborgs or something; part of the dumb charm of Chopping Mall is the ludicrous robot design, not to mention the fact that these practical beasts actually worked. You have to admire that sort of hands-on craftsmanship that even Wynorski himself has all but abandoned these days, and I don’t just meant that in a nostalgic sort of way. That so much effort was put into making a movie about killer robots explains just why Chopping Mall works: despite the absurd premise, everyone gave a damn, and anyone who dares to retread this material would do well to remember that.

The disc:

For years, die-hard fans have bemoaned the fate of Chopping Mall and dozens of other titles that wound up in the Lionsgate library. Many of them have yet to see a release, and those that have often arrived in the same condition as Chopping Mall, with half-assed VHS-sourced transfers and minimal extras. Sure, it was a bit easier to swallow when it arrived on a budget-priced multi-pack with the likes of Ghoulies III and 976-Evil 2, but no one would rightfully argue that this title had been done any kind of justice. But in one of the more exciting home video announcements in recent memory (which is actually saying a lot), Lionsgate recently announced Chopping Mall would finally arrive on Blu-ray as the debut title of their recently-revived Vestron Video label. I love everything about that sentence.

Even better, this release doesn’t disappoint at all. Not only is Chopping Mall restored to its proper widescreen aspect ratio, but its newly restored transfer is a treat that makes the film’s fluorescent aesthetic pop right off of the screen. What’s more, the number of supplements is downright stunning, as the disc boasts three commentaries, including two newly recorded tracks: one with Maroni, Wynorski, and 2nd unit director/co-writer Steve Mitchell, and another with horror experts Nathaniel Thompson and Ryan Turek. (Wynorski and Mitchell’s original track from the 2004 release also appears.)

The centerpiece of the other newly-produced extras is “Back to the Mall,” a 30-minute retrospective that feels similar to the Red Shirt productions found on many Scream Factory discs. Most of the principles are involved, all of them fondly recounting just how much fun it was to film a movie in the Sherman Oaks Galleria (given the infectious nature of it all, it’s no wonder the final product ended up being fun as hell). Three separate interviews with editor Leslie Rosenthal, killbots creator Robert Short, and composer Chuck Cirino focus on these specific areas of expertise, while a humorous “interview” with one of the killbots appears as well. If you want proof that the Vestron team left no stone unturned, they even dug up the script for a lost scene with Bartel and Woronov that was never filmed, and interviewed Chopping Mall superfan Carl Sampieri. Finally, they ported over the vintage “Creating the Killbots” featurette and the theatrical trailer that appeared on that previous, now completely obsolete DVD release.

With their first release, Vestron has blasted right out of the gate: never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect any sort of special treatment for Chopping Mall on Blu-ray, much less a lavish, headlining effort for a retro boutique label. Just when you thought the cult home video landscape couldn’t seem any more promising, Vestron arrives to open the floodgates for even more favorites to receive their due. I mean, in a world where CHUD 2 is set to receive the premium treatment, anything is possible, right?
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