Recent news caused quite the stir as it was revealed director Robert Hall was aiming to revive 1986’s Chopping Mall, only the filmmaker’s intent was to drop the whole killer robot angle. Ya’ know…the sole conceit of the original film? Personally, I think Hall is a fine director (Laid to Rest is one of the best slasher flicks of the last ten years), and I’m sure no matter what he would’ve done with a remake, I’d be in line to check it out. But, Chopping Mall is the epitome of 80’s dumb-fun horror. It’s far from a sacred cow, and I think an updated take on the material could be a total blast. A few extra dollars spent on (practical) effects, a reliance on gory deaths, and some cheeky dialogue would be all that I’d ask of a new Chopping Mall. There just had better be some damn killbots up in that piece! Ultimately, however, it seems the ire from fans may have been moot as the original film’s director has claimed Hall does not currently hold the remake rights. This conversation is incredibly prescient, though, as today marks the 32nd anniversary of the killer robots/dead teenagers in a mall flick.
Released in 1986, it’s safe to assume that no one involved thought we’d still be discussing this little slice of bubblegum terror 32 years later. This wasn’t anyone’s idea of a passion project. Julie Corman, working for her husband Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures, was tasked by VHS giant Vestron Video to deliver a horror film set in a mall. Enter, Jim Wynorski. Wynorski is, perhaps, “problematic” as a person. As a director, he has helmed hundreds of quicky D grade flicks featuring an unimaginable combination of boobs, ass, and blood (Bare Wench Project, The Witches of Breastwick). Occasionally, he directs a film that is not only watchable but a hell of a good time (The Haunting of Morella, Hard to Die, 976 Evil 2, Transylvania Twist…okay, maybe more than “occasionally”). This was only his third go-round as director, though he’d written several titles for Corman and co previously. When he got wind of the “mall horror” gig, the young filmmaker jumped at the chance. Wynorski convinced Julie to bring him onboard by offering his services as a screenwriter on a budget, as long as he was given the job of director.
He partnered with Steve Mitchell (who later went on to write for TV with “Jem” and “G.I. Joe”) to bang out a treatment for their security robots gone bad opus. The duo wasted no time and submitted their pitch only 24 hours after writing began. Vestron Video took the bait and commissioned the film from Corman. Wynorski and Mitchell began crafting an actual script which took them less than five weeks to finish. From there, production moved fast and loose. They shot the film in around 20 days on a budget less than a million dollars. They filmed strictly nights at California’s Sherman Oaks Galleria. They didn’t have the budget to shut the place down, so they had to film during the limited window when the mall was closed at night.
The plot, if you’ve somehow never experienced its special blend of tongue-in-cheek and overly earnest goofiness, concerns itself with a fleet of security bots at a fancy mall that get their wires crossed during a thunderstorm. Built to serve and protect, they end up seeing a group of randy teens who’ve snuck into party after hours at the mall’s furniture store(?) as lethal threats. The bots respond accordingly with deadly force. In typical Wynorski fashion, boobs and blood ensue. It was important to co-writer Mitchell that the kids were more than meat-targets in a body count flick. Unimpressed with the slew of dead teenager flicks of the time, Mitchell wanted to ensure his teens fought back. That simple mission statement helps elevate Chopping Mall from the generic slasher flick the film’s title might bring to mind. Much like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, these kids have a bevy of options at their disposal within the confines of the mall, and Wynorski and Mitchell ensured the characters got to improvise their defenses using the various tools at their disposal to stand against their technological adversaries. It’s this action element that gives it an almost Die Hard as a slasher flick vibe, a style Wynorski would later build upon with Hard to Die (AKA Sorority House Massacre 3).
The cast was front-loaded with two of the hottest “scream queens” of the time. Kelli Maroney (Night of the Comet) claims she got the role after the original actress hired refused to curse on-screen. Maroney was game for anything. In her own words, “I’ll swear. I’ll do anything you want!” Of course, Maroney’s character Alice doesn’t even drop a single F-bomb or curse word throughout the film. In the words of Wynorski, however, she was hired for a much different reason: “I had seen Kelli in a couple of things, and I wanted to date her. So, I figured the one way to make that happen was to put her in a movie.” Umm…nonetheless, Maroney brings such a spunky spirit to her performance in the film. To explain away her character’s seemingly perfect marksmanship after the kids break into Peckinpah’s (wink-wink) and load up on artillery, Maroney ad-libbed the line, “My dad’s a marine.” Despite the bizarre furniture store orgy and often awkward dialogue, Maroney’s only regret during the production is the excessive camel toe she sports due to the tight, hiked up, 80’s jeans!
Of course, the legendary Barbara Crampton (Re-animator, From Beyond), rounds out the tag team of notable horror actresses to grace the Park Plaza Mall. While Maloney and Crampton might have been the starring attractions of the main cast, a few more notable faces pop up throughout the runtime. “That guy” Dick Miller plays an ill-fated janitor and Paul Bartel along with B-movie queen in her own right, Mary Woronov, both cameo as continuations of their on-screen personas from the cult fave Eating Raoul.
After the lightning speed production, the film was released under the title Killbots…to tepid box office. In a smart marketing move, Concorde pulled the film and retitled it Chopping Mall. While the updated moniker helped rake in a bit of extra dough, it wasn’t until Vestron unleashed the killbots onto video store shelves that Chopping Mall truly began to build its cult following. From food court sized options of favorite quotable lines (“I like pepperoni.” or “I’m just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.”) to THE infamous exploding head, and breakneck pace, Chopping Mall is 80’s B-movie filmmaking at its finest. The film represents a time when movies could be sold based solely on a poster or a barebones concept (“horror movie in a mall!”). The difference is most of those “poster before script” films feel like soulless cash grabs. Wynorski and Mitchell utilized the right level of carefree “whatever works/can do” attitude to a hackneyed premise and delivered a horror film that will be forever remembered, even if the setting on which the story is built has gone the way of the VCR.