Trust me. Absolutely nothing can go wrong.
Chopping Mall is a time capsule to a different time in American life when all we had to worry about was killer robots attacking us at the shopping mall.
The trailer for Chopping Mall gives you all you need to know (and a bit more). Security robots for an all-American shopping mall run amok and attack a bunch of youth that are partying in the store, after hours. It’s the most tragic and scary horror film of the capitalistic 1980s.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
At the Park Plaza Mall, presumably in California, Dr. Stan Simon (Paul Coufos) shows a movie about his new Protector model 101 security robots, before demonstrating them in person. He shows how the security badge works, and takes a few questions from Mall store owners before letting them know how safe these robots are. Sometime later, once the robots are installed, a lightning strike shorts out the server on the roof, throwing the Protectors into disarray, where they kill a technician (Morgan Douglas).
Inside the Mall a group of young workers make plans for an after-hour party hosted at the Furniture King store. The guests include Allison (Kelli Maroney) and Suzie (Barbara Crampton) who work at the pizza restaurant, Greg (Nick Segal), Mike (John Terlesky) and Ferdy (Tony O’Dell), who work at the furniture store, and Leslie (Suzee Slater), Mike’s girlfriend that works at the clothing store. Two other married friends, Linda and Rick (Karrie Emerson & Russell Todd) are driving in from elsewhere to meet with the friends. The robots come online for their evening patrol, killing a second Technician (Gerrit Graham) and a janitor (Dick Miller).
The youth dance as the guys introduce Ferdy (whose Dad owns the store) to Allison. All the other couples hook up and have sex, while Ferdy and Allison watch an old horror movie on TV. Greg leaves the store to get some cigarettes when he is confronted by one of the robots. He shows his ID as instructed, but the robot uses lethal force to “detain” him. Leslie goes out to find him and is chased by the killbot, having her head blown off by its laser beam. The others watch on in shock. As the kids try to escape out the rear of the store, the Mall security doors–installed with the Protectors–close for the night; engaging until 6am the next morning.
The girls crawl through the air ducts trying to get to the parking level, while the boys are forced to run from a killbot. Mike, Rick, and Ferdy grab guns and supplies from the sporting goods store and blow up one robot with a propane tank–but it’s only offline and soon comes after them. Alison, Linda, and Suzie find an auto store and gather supplies for molotov cocktails. They manage to light another ‘bot on fire, but Suzie is shot and set on fire. The remaining survivors gather in the pizza restaurant to make a plan, but Greg is distraught with the death of his girlfriend and charges ahead of the others. He is thrown over a ledge to a lower floor and dies. “Thank you. Have a nice day.”
Allison, Ferdy, Linda, and Rick hide in a department store, but the robots split up and try to find a way in. Using mannequins, the survivors confuse the one killbot at the front entrance, using mirrors to reflect the laser beams back at the killer machine. It spins out of control, shooting wildly and kills Linda as she tries to escape. Rick angrily rams the Protector with a mall cart and gets electrocuted in the process. Ferdy and Allison split up to locate the main computer on Level 3 and shut it down. When one killbot surprises Ferdy he shoots it in its “eye” taking the laser systems offline. It throws a fire extinguisher into Ferdy’s chest knocking him down, blood flowing out of his head, presuming he is dead.
Allison runs from the final killbot, hiding in a pet store. When the robot follows her in, it knocks over containers with snakes and spiders that crawl into Allison’s hiding spot. She escapes, barely, and hangs over the ledge to hide, but the robot will not leave. She falls to the floor below, catching herself in a tent, but injuring her leg. She limps into a paint store, spilling paint and turpentine on the ground. When the killbot follows her it becomes stuck. She uses a flare she got at the auto store to blow up the paint store and the final killbot. Ferdy limps back towards her, having survived with only a cut on his head. In a post credit scene another killbot rolls towards camera. “Have a nice day!”
“I guess I’m just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” – Linda
History in the Making
Chopping Mall is the ultimate crossover between science fiction and horror films which may make it the most iconic genre film in the decade of the 1980s. Released in early 1986, the film is a low-budget attempt to capitalize on the glut of horror films that reached popularity over the previous five years, while injecting a sci-fi twist–which also reached peak popularity in the mid-80s–as well. Add in to that the location of the film, an American Mall, also at the height of its popularity, and the film was at peak marketing potential.
In all seriousness Chopping Mall is a low-budget, yer memorable attempt to capitalize on multiple national trends. It was produced by Julie Corman, wife of iconic film producer Roger Corman, who utilized many of the elder Corman’s regular actors, his ethos for production, and an exploitative script. Even though Roger is not listed in the credits of this film, his tone and the weight of his history is certainly felt.
Shot in about three weeks, Chopping Mall is a fast paced, youth oriented, action/horror film with plenty of special effects, T & A, and jump scares to keep the popcorn flowing. There’s no ulterior motive for the film. The producers did not set out to make an academy award winning film. It probably went something like this: We have a Mall we can film in, let’s make a horror film film, but instead of a masked killer, let’s use security robots! And in the end, the film they created is a fun horror film that captures a moment in American history and entertains audiences.
Films of this nature are not usually trend setters when it comes to genre elements, instead preferring to be on the referencing end. But Chopping Mall was one of the earliest killer robot films, potentially influencing later movies. One of the earliest “robots run amok” films was 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its neurotic AI named HAL. There was also Westworld, where humanoid robots kill attendees at an amusement park. The 80s had their share of killer robots prior to Chopping Mall including Blade Runner and The Terminator. As an interesting coincidence, the robot film Short Circuit, which came out about three months after Chopping Mall featured a similar setup. In that film however, a lightning strike makes a “killer” robot into a friendly and inquisitive one.
That being said, the film still uses many references to other sci-fi and horror properties as great easter eggs for fans. Several borrowed elements from the horror genre, made popular with slasher films like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street, include the final female–which is what it sounds, the last person alive is a woman–and the concept of sexuality equalling death. Aside from the first three deaths or the technicians and the janitor, all the young people that die have just engaged in intercourse. The two that survive are the outliers and have abstained. I honestly doubt that this aspect was given much thought. It was probably a sense that this trope was an expected outcome of this style of film and included for no other reason that they needed a) nudity and sex and b) a high body count.
Chopping Mall also pays homage to the many films of Roger Corman, both in horror and science-fiction. The most obvious of these connections is the Corman directed film that Allison and Ferdy are watching, Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). There are also posters scattered around the mall in various places for his films such as Saturday the 14th (1981), Galaxy of Terror (1981), Sorceress (1982), Forbidden World (1982) and Barbarian Queen (1985). Additionally character actor Dick Miller, who appeared in a number of Corman’s productions including Not of This Earth, appears as a janitor with the same name as his character in Corman’s 1959 A Bucket of Blood film.
This film is certainly not trying to further the discussion on the human condition, like 2001, or Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It doesn’t want to explore human interactions with aliens, xenophobic losses of identity due to pod people, or redefine the status quo in sci-fi storytelling. It’s purely an entertaining popcorn film with some scares. Or is it?
Could it be that Chopping Mall is actually a horror film that occurs in the best location, a Mall, in order to sell the idea about the dangers of consumerism? The management of the Mall presumably hired the security firm of Secure-Tronics Unlimited to install the Protector 101 series based on some sort of advertising program. It seems unlikely that a company would design a robot like this for purely private sector security, so an additional assumption is that these robots were originally designed for military applications and pared down for use in the public sector. That would explain the various semi-lethal weapons such as the taser. The installation of the security force would be to protect the property of the Mall in its entirety, but since these patrolled after hours, then the individual security of the stores was not a priority. The film shows an average “day at the mall” during the credits where a teenager is trying to steal records from the Licorice Pizza store. This is not the kind of theft they are looking to prevent.
Since a mall is designed as an indoor shopping megalopolis, maintaining that space after-hours is important. But what sort of incursions would be occurring that an alarm, and security doors (which get installed as well) could not provide? The security film-within-a-film seems to indicate that the jewelry thief would not have been apprehended without the use of the Protector series robot. But this is only the sales film from Secure-Tronics. Of course they will up-sell the benefits of their system. Much like the demo film of the laser guidance system in Real Genius, which pledges to make the world a safer place, the imagery benefits the company making the pitch. Chopping Mall is presenting a clever satire of consumerism, and it’s place in mid-80s culture, both from a user standpoint (the workers being used for fodder against the killer robots) and from a sales standpoint (bigger is always better). The 80s were a time of go big or go home, and the overkill provided by the Protector 101 series proves that. See also Robocop (1987) for a more finely tuned satire on consumer culture.
The Science in The Fiction
One thing anyone who’s watched this film can agree on is the robots are awesome! The filmmakers knew what they were making there. As I sit here in the 21st Century thinking about the Mall security robots that guard the perimeter, these designs are uncanny and so close to the real thing.
Of course, there’s no real Mall security robots, at least nothing to the level of what is shown in Chopping Mall, and that’s probably by design. While the production had some shells of the killbots that were able to drive around on their treads by remote control, there was nothing like a full working version of these robots. Heck, even Star Wars never had a fully operational version of R2-D2, not at least that can do all the things he does in that film.
The science here is completely flawed, which is what makes this a horror film. For example, why is the computer on the roof? And why is it un-shielded from lightning strikes? There’s no back up system, and technicians are on site? Oh there’s no way SkyNet will rise from the ashes of this mess. But the robots remain a draw for fans of the film, as they kill their way around the Mall like new-wave Daleks.
The Final Frontier
Director Jim Wynorski spent the rest of his career making low budget films like this, or even lower budget, soft-core pornography. Nothing else has achieved the level of this early success. Not 976-Evil II, not Deathstalker II, and not The Return of the Swamp Thing. He did put some fun homages to Corman’s other work as mentioned above, as well as including several horror actors famous for other works. Besides the Dick Miller cameo (which seemed like a staple in many horror films from the 80s), there’s the obvious cameo by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov. These two actors first appeared in Corman’s Death Race 2000, but it was Bartel’s cult-classic Eating Raoul (1982) that they are remembered for. They appeared in over 17 movies together with Woronov appearing in next week’s Sci-Fi Saturdays film.
Wynorski also included some clever stores in the mall as tributes to directors and films that he appreciated. These include “Peckinpah’s Sporting Goods” named after noted western director Sam Peckinpah, and “Roger’s Little Shop of Pets,” which is another shout-out to Roger Corman and his odd 60s horror film Little Shop of Horrors. The love goes both ways however as the killbots of Chopping Mall got a nice homage to their designs in the seventh and final season of Agents of SHIELD. Time travel and alien robots has the team end up in 1985, creating a series of deadly robots out of the parts available at the time. It was a film that Agent Mackenzie was always referencing as one of the scariest things he could imagine. Chopping Mall was also filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria (with exteriors of the Beverly Center Mall) which is a pretty famous 80s film location. Other films shot there include the obvious Valley Girl, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Commando, and next week’s film, Night of the Comet.
Thanks for hanging out at the Mall with Sci-Fi Saturdays this week. If you like Kelli Maroney, be sure to come back for next week’s film which also features her in an earlier sci-fi/zombie horror film. Thank you, and have a nice day!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.