As a kid, I remember seeing Corey Wolfe’s awesome VHS box art for director Jim Wynorski’s 1986 film, Chopping Mall, at the numerous visits my family paid to various mom and pop rental shops. Along with Maniac (1980), it’s the art I remember most from that timeframe as I was still pretty young and it legitimately scared me. It took me years to actually see the film, though, as it wasn’t until the Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray was released in 2016 that I finally found out if the film lived up to that artwork’s promise. Thankfully, I had a blast with it, and I’ve enjoyed every re-watch. With Wynorski’s trademark mischievous humor, the brisk storytelling, and the fairly impressive practical effects, it’s easy to see why Chopping Mall epitomizes the phrase “fan favorite.” March 21, 2021, marks the film’s thirty-fifth anniversary, so we here at PopHorror headquarters decided to take a look back!
The plot to Chopping Mall is pretty straightforward. The owners of a mall decide to utilize state of the art robots to patrol its corridors after close, defending the stores from would be burglars. Meanwhile, some young people decide to have an after hours party at the furniture store where three of them work. Unfortunately, after a rogue lightning strike, the robots are freed from their pre-programmed restrictions and are now roving killing machines. Trapped inside with the robots by metal security doors—who knew malls needed this much protection?—our partiers have to fight to stay alive.
Performances in Chopping Mall are broad though not wooden or unpolished. Everybody looks like they’re having a good time with Wynorski and co-writer Steve Mitchell’s rollicking but concise script. While it lifts some cues from the slasher genre, the characters are more proactive than the typical fodder served up in those films. The most recognizable faces include genre icon Barbara Crampton (read our interview with her here), who is warm and screams admirably as valley girl Suzie, Night of the Comet (1984 – read our retro review here) co-star Kelli Maroney as the sweet and endearing Alison, beloved character actor Dick Miller, possibly resurrecting his role from 1959’s A Bucket of Blood, in an extended cameo as a grumpy custodian, and Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov briefly reprising their roles from 1982’s Eating Raoul.
Even Phantasm‘s Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit role (he’s credited under his real name, Lawrence Guy). On this most recent viewing, however, I found myself most enjoying John Terlesky’s turn as the perpetually gum chomping Mike. The square jawed actor graduated to lead for Wynorski’s next project, Deathstalker II (1987).
As I mentioned above, there’s a cheeky sense of humor at play. Though not over the top or intrusive, the self-aware streak heightens the entertainment factor. Strict realism isn’t a concern, and our principals play to the premise, aiming more for fun than scares.
That being said, Wynorski and company don’t skimp on gore or spectacle. The makeup and special effects in Chopping Mall are impressive. There are multiple fairly large explosions, a full body burn sequence, and an outstanding exploding head scene (which is revisited in the end credits sequence to hilarious effect). The design and onscreen realization of the robots by makeup and effects wiz Robert Short (Beetlejuice 1988) is nicely done. Their red visors and grasping claws give them a legitimately menacing personality.
There are a handful of admirable stunts and a scene involving live tarantulas and snakes. Most of these aspects would probably be (poorly) achieved through CGI today, allowing the film’s visual appeal to have aged fairly well, even while maintaining its low budget charm (purportedly $800,000). The lively and springy electronic score by Chuck Cirino (The Return of Swamp Thing 1989) gives the film a nice tempo and an appropriately computerized flavor. The tight editing by Leslie Rosenthal (Ticks 1993) also assists with delivering a lively pace.
At 77 minutes, storytelling is economical but still satisfyingly relentless. Shockingly, Chopping Mall was mostly shot in a real mall, the Sherman Oaks Galleria (also the location of some sequences for 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and 1985’s Commando). There’s some decently serious property damage on screen, so I’m amazed they were able to have everything cleaned up every morning for opening, although a few days were spent shooting at B-movie god Roger Corman‘s studio, so maybe that’s where the explosions were filmed. In any case, DP Tom Richmond (House of 1000 Corpses 2003 – read our retro review here) capably captures both jokey character beats and mechanical mayhem, making for an uncomplicated viewing experience. I especially like the claustrophobia he’s able to conjure in the airduct sequence.
Speaking of Corman, his wife, Julie (Brain Dead 1990), an accomplished producer in her own right, oversaw the production. Other notable bits include the fact that Suzee Slater has a sizable supporting role. Of course, she’s remembered by fans for abruptly opting to leave the film industry, seemingly choosing to lead a life of obscurity with no one in Hollywood knowing her whereabouts since the mid ’90s. She was one of the few surviving cast members to not participate in the film’s fairly recent reunion screening at Hollywood’s famed Egyptian Theater.
Chopping Mall’s original title was Killbots. Apparently, the film was initially released under that title, but after a poor test screening, the film debuted with the new, snappier title. There have long been rumors that the initial Killbots release featured a longer cut, but I asked Wynorski via Facebook Messenger about that, and he informed me that the only alternate version is the edited-for-TV cut that utilized footage from a different mall to pad out the runtime. That version is not available via any legitimate release that I’m aware of.
Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall is a fun little slice of low budget ‘80s sci-fi horror. It’s brisk and doesn’t overstay its welcome, delivering sly thrills and chills in a compact manner. The Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray has a pleasing look and contains a plethora of extras. At the moment, it seems like that one is the best release available. I love having it in my collection, as it has high re-watch value. Recommended for fans of Short Circuit (1986), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and the Evil Dead series.