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Back in the halcyon days of 1981, you’d have been hard-pressed to find two more popular slang terms in the English language than “Smokey” — a  catch-all euphemism for  any and all members of our nation’s law enforcement community  — and “bites the dust” — which meant, of course, to get killed. The first was popularized, at least on a mass scale, by Burt Reynolds, the second by Freddie Mercury. Both guys sported the kind of mustaches that would be considered pretty fucking cheesy by today’s standards but were thought to embody the hairy apex of machismo at the time, and  near as I can determine — unless you know some salacious details about Burt’s personal life that I’m not privy to — that’s where any similarities between the two end.

Leave it to Roger Corman to come up with the idea of mashing up these two then-current reigning champions of populist vernacular and figuring he could make a movie out of it somehow. The problem, however, with Smokey Bites The Dust is that, beyond the title itself, nobody bothered to put any thought into it at all.


The stills accompanying this review really tell you all you need to know about what’s going on here, but for those of you who absolutely must read a plot recap of some sort in any piece of — and I’m being generous with my own writing here, I admit — “critical analysis,” here’s the deal : backwoods Ozark knuckle-draggin’ hick Roscoe Wilton (Jimmy McNichol) has a thing for stealing cars and smashing ’em up cuz’ it shore is a durn good time. Just a good ol’ boy never meanin’ no harm, right? Unfortunately for him, the ball-busting Sheriff Tuner (Walter Barnes) is out to ruin his fun whenever and wherever possible. Fortunately for him, Turner is, of course, a complete idiot, a bungling nincompoop of a predator can never catch up with his prey. To further complicate matters — not that the word “complicated” really applies to this flick in any way, shape, or form — Roscoe’s got the hots for the sheriff’s daughter, Peggy Sue (Janet Julian), and he figgers it’d be  a real holler to kidnap her on homecoming day at the local high school. Again — all in good fun, innit?

Needless to say, slack-jawed yokel sheriff doesn’t take well to the idea of  the town hooligan making off with his precious lil’ angel, and soon — for reasons that make even less sense than those offered in the average Corman production — cops from not only all over the country, but apparently all over the world (watch for a couple of “comic relief” Arabs) are brought in to rescue darling Peggy Sue (who — shocker! — finds herself falling for the “charms” of her abductor) and drag Roscoe, kickin’ and screamin’, into the county lock-up once an’ fer all.


Really, though, this movie’s raison d’etre is to show a bunch of junked-out old cars getting smashed up and, when that gets too predictable (which takes all of about five minutes), exploding in flame. If that sounds like your idea of a good night in front of the tube, then I guess you’ll find Smokey Bites The Dust to be a reasonably amusing little time-waster, but honestly — you’d be much better off watching old demolition derby-type footage, and that would probably offer more by way of an involving plot, to boot.


Still, if there’s one thing — and I should stress here it’s one thing — I found rather charming about this idiotic mess of a film, it’s that director Charles B. Griffith takes the “idiot cop” stereotype so popular at the time to absurd, self-parodying heights, and God help me if that doesn’t fill this reviewer with a warm dose of nostalgia. Today, of course, the boys in blue are pretty much always portrayed as “heroes” in the popular media, and even the most flagrant excesses and abominations these guys commit on screen are shown in a sympathetic light — after all, these are the good guys, and sometimes you gotta go to extremes to protect “us” ( meaning God-fearin’ middle-class Christian white folks) from “them” (everybody else). If they gotta cut a few corners, bust a few heads, and wipe their asses with the US Constitution along the way, well — it may not be pretty, but  it’s all in a day’s work, and it’s all for our own good.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck that. Ever since the days of the Keystone Kops, the most common representation of “the fuzz” in movies and TV was one of a bunch of bumbling morons who couldn’t even tie their shoelaces, much less catch the guys they were after. It was a comedic distillation of the all-American anti-authoritarian spirit in its purest form, and it really did reach its zenith with the “CB craze” films of the late ’70s such as Smokey And The Bandit and Convoy. So what happened? Well, it’s hard to put a finger on any one event in particular, but I would say that the hard turn to the right ushered in by the election of Ronald Reagan  effected a none-too-subtle transition in how not just how our popular media, but our national culture in general, viewed all forms of police officers. Sure, there were always guys like Dirty Harry, but there were a dozen movies that made fun of the cops for every one of those back in the day. By the mid-’80s, however, that ratio was completely reversed — and I would argue that we’re definitely worse off for the change. Still, I guess that’s another topic for another time — suffice to say, it makes for a fun trip down memory lane to see a movie in which the cops are openly targeted as figures worthy of ridicule and disdain.


Honestly, though, that really is all Smokey Bites The Dust (which is available on DVD from Shout! Factory, packaged together with Georgia Peaches and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase in something called the “Action Packed Collection,” part of their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series — no extras, but the remastered widescreen transfer and mono sound are both perfectly serviceable) has going for it. Not even an early appearance from William Forsythe and cameos from always-terrific Corman stalwarts Dick Miller and Mel Welles can save this jumbled mess of pointless, plotless garbage, so I’ll leave you with this thought to ponder over just for the sake of establishing myself as the first critic in history to ever extrapolate a philosophical question from this flick : Smokey Bites The Dust, translated into actual, Oxford Dictionary-approved English, literally means A Cop Gets Killed. To the extent that the American public even noticed this movie at all, they viewed it as being harmless, stupid, goofy fun — yet 15 years after it came out they crucified Ice-T (in his “dangerous,” pre-reality show incarnation) for saying exactly the same thing. Why the difference?

chopping mall1


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 HighWaxwork, 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.

Ever had a flick you haven’t seen in awhile and been pleasantly surprised to find, upon re-watching it, that it’s every bit as good as you remember, and maybe even better? Such is the case with your host’s recent viewing of Joe Dante’s seminal 1978 Jaws rip-off,  Piranha.

Oh, sure, it’s a lot less bloody than I remember, and the fish are a lot more rubbery looking to me now than they were the last time I saw this (which has gotta be nearly a couple decades ago now), but it’s a lot more atmospheric and just plain fun than my pubescent brain gave it credit for being. And now that Shout! Factory has finally re-released it on DVD as part of their Roger Corman’s Cult Classics line (loaded with the usual awesome assemblage of extras we’ve come to expect from this gift-to-B-movie-aficionados series, including a brand-new “making-of” featurette, deleted scenes and outtakes, all the extra scenes added for the television broadcast version (yes, once the brief nudity and a little of the blood was edited out, this flick ran considerably under the standard network movie-slot runtime and extra scenes were shot to pad the flick out), radio spots, TV spots, a couple trailers, and a feature-length commentary track featuring director Dante and producer Jon Davison — oh, and the anamorphic widescreen transfer and remastered mono sound are both damn solid, to boot), we can all enjoy this camp, 50’s-influenced classic time and again in the privacy of our own homes. Who says life ain’t great?

The setup is as basic as they come : skip-tracer’s gal Friday Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) gets sent by her boss to find a couple of missing teenagers who disappeared near a Texas river, meets up with local drunk divorcee Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman, doing his best Andrew Prine imitation, which causes the mid to reel for a minute when you consider the question “How cheap is Roger Corman? So cheap he didn’t even hire Andrew fucking Prine to play a role pretty much tailor-made for him!”) who’s holing up in a cabin near where the two young lovebirds probably disappeared and enlists his more-than-reluctant help in finding them, and in their investigations they run across a formerly-employed-by-the-guv’mint mad scientist (Kevin McCarthy) who’s bread a mutant strain of killer piranha capable of surviving in cold water (he wanted to use ’em to win the Viet Nam war — really) and our erstwhile heroes commit the fuck-up of the century by accidentally releasing the flesh-eating fish into the river, where they soon threaten both the summer camp where Grogan’s daughter (played by Belinda Balaski) is staying and the new white trash water park just opened up by local unscrupulous tycoon Buck Gradner (Dick Miller, who’s just about the coolest B-movie actor of all time). Cult stalwarts like Keenan Wynn and Barbra Steele turn up in side roles along the way as the military and local law enforcement get involved, and pretty soon there’s a full-court press on to lock up and shut up our intrepid amateur sleuths who just want to save people from certain scaly doom while the powers-that-be seem more interested in averting widespread panic, keeping their dirty little secret scientific breeding program under wraps, and protecting sleazy Buck’s profit margins. It’ll all end in tears, I tell ya, it’ll all end in tears.

Actually, no it won’t, it’ll end on a totally brazen ready-for-sequel non-climax. But we won’t hold that classic exploitation hustle against D ante and his cohorts because along the way we’re treated to a combination of Jaws on a (shoestring) budget, summer camp horror of the Friday The 13th variety (albeit a few years before that slasher classic came along), a mishmash of classic 1950s B-movie style set-ups, some genuinely interesting and dare I even say charming characters, incisively witty dialogue (no huge surprise given that future indie auteur par excellence John Sayles wrote the script), solid suspense, and some of the best editing you’ll ever see in a flick this cheap. The whole thing has a surprisingly professional feel for such an overtly amateur effort and it’s really no surprise that so many of the people behind the scenes went on to have such lucrative and successful film careers. Like the titular piranha themselves, Dante, Sayles, and their counterparts (most notable co-editor Mark Goldblatt) cut their teeth on this movie and then went on to bigger, meatier fare.

Piranha is by no means top-notch, high-brow filmmaking, but it’s way better than it’s probably got any right to be, especially in terms of its production values, it’s got a comedy-romp pace and feel to it, and it never insults its audience even while (quite obviously) not taking itself too terribly seriously. It’s got plenty of heart and almost as much brains. And I’m kicking myself for having neglected it for so long.

So dive on in and enjoy yourself — sure the water’s cold, and the fish bite, but that’s the whole point! Don’t wait 20 years to get around to watching this bona fide cut-rate classic again, especially now that a readily-available (and terrific) DVD release frankly offers you no excuse to do so.