Jim Wynorski is one of those guys whose continuing appeal as a supposed “cult auteur” has always mystified me. I mean, I like low-budget crap as much as anyone — obviously! — and he’s spent his entire career on the lower rungs of the independent exploitation/straight-to-video ladder, but for a variety of reasons, most of the B-movie fare he’s cranked out has just never appealed to me. For every rule, however, there is an exception, and in this case that exception is 1986’s Chopping Mall, a Roger Corman-produced quickie that Wynorski shot at the Sherman Oaks Galleria shopping center that’s certainly nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary, but is nevertheless a damn fun little way to while away a mere 77 minutes of your time on this planet.
Packaged and sold as a slasher-type flick after it went nowhere under its original (and far more honest and accurate) title of Killbots, the “crazed psychos” in this movie have a lot more in common with ED-2000 from Robocop (which, to its credit, this film preceded in release by a year) than they do Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers because, well — they’re malfunctioning robotic security guards, not flesh-and-blood lunatics in masks. They’re just as tough to bring down as any of the superstars of slasherdom, though, with the extra added bonus of their near-indestructibility actually making a kind of logical sense being that they’re, ya know, machines and all.
The basic premise, as you’d expect in a movie with a duration of under 80 minutes, is simple enough : mall hires robots as security guards, a group of kids who work at a carpet store in said mall decide to have an after-hours party complete with the usual drinkin’ an’ fuckin’ teen shenanigans, said robots go haywire when a bolt of lightning hits their central control antenna (or something), and soon it’s a horny high schoolers vs. killer mechanical sentries battle royale (with plenty of cheese).
A lot of the fun to be had with Chopping Mall comes in the form of playing “hey, look! isn’t that —?,” since soon-to-be-more-recognizable stars like Re-Animator‘s Barbara Crampton and Tony O’Dell from TV’s Head Of The Class are cast among the group of randy teens and Wynorski populates his merry troupe of supporting players with long-time cult favorites like Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Mel Welles and Angus Scrimm, all of whom are obviously having a good time picking up a check for a quick day’s work, but the film certainly has a little bit more going in its favor than that. The “killbots” are effectively designed and move around pretty nicely, the body count they rack up is fairly impressive, the various murders themselves are fun to watch (go ahead, phone my shrink now) and people don’t necessarily die in the order you expect them to even if the choice of final two survivors is pretty — okay, I’m being polite :entirely — predictable.
On the minus side, well — let’s be honest here, any horror movie set in a shopping mall is going to suffer in comparison with Dawn Of The Dead, even if the horror movie in question isn’t doing much of anything to invite such comparisons. There’s no commentary on rampant American consumerism and greed to be gleaned from Chopping Mall‘s subtext as there was in Romero’s masterwork because, well — this flick has no fucking subtext! What you see is what you get, and what you see is a competently-executed, fast-paced, absurd-on-its-face 80s teen horror with a fairly timeless fear-of-technology twist. It’s all in good fun, and Chopping Mall is both good and fun. Plus, nobody can overplay getting zapped with a couple thousand volts like Dick Miller. The man’s a legend for a reason.
Wynorski, to his credit, also knows when to cut and run with this one, a trait he doesn’t show with some of his other, more heavily-padded (even if the runtimes are always short anyway) work. Ten more minutes of this thing probably would have been too much, and it’s always nice to welcome a guest into your home who knows when it’s time to leave. At a lean and mean 77 minutes, Chopping Mall doesn’t hang around for one drink too many. It hits the road in plenty of time for you to get up rested and ready for work the next day and doesn’t bore you with one or two extra anecdotes from its life that you don’t care about anyway. Don’t you wish your friends and relatives were this considerate?
To my knowledge, this flick is available in a couple of different ways on DVD, both from Lionsgate — there’s a stand-alone release that includes a commentary from Wynorski and a “making-of” featurette, and it’s also included as part of a two-disc, 8-movie set bearing the less-than-inspired titled of “Horror Movie Collection,” where it shares space with other also-ran features like Slaughter High, Waxwork, and The Unholy, among others. Both feature the same decent-enough widescreen transfer and equally-decent-enough 2.0 stereo sound, and you can probably score either for less than ten bucks.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not always in the mood for a movie that’s out to expand my horizons, tax my mental capabilities, or even do anything remotely different or unorthodox. Just get me from point A to point B and keep me reasonably entertained along the way. Next time you’re in one of those moods, Chopping Mall would be a fine choice for your evening’s viewing.