“Chopping Mall”: The 1986 sci-fi/comedy/horror film about killer robots on the loose with must-see SFX

By on February 4, 2016

Robots designed to help, but actually ruining human lives, have been science fiction fodder since the 1920s. Chopping Mall — a sci-fi/comedy/horror film from 1986 — both embraces and exploits the fear we humans have of murderous A.I. run amok.

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In Chopping Mall, droids installed to beef up security at the local shopping mecca after hours, patrol the normally well-lit and bustling complex in dark light and relative quiet. The robots creep along in the shadows of the mall, enhancing our anxiety as viewers that terror looms just around the corner…Sure enough, it does, and soon rogue droids are hell-bent on killing attractive teenagers still in the mall, tazing the teens and blasting them with lasers. Though these shitty little robots have terrible aim, one laser connects in such a fashion that it rendered the scene infamous (and it’s still talked about to this day).

Chopping Mall is now a cult classic and this year marks its 30th anniversary. We here at Night Flight feel this is a cause for celebration. What’s not to love about an ’80s B-movie concerning bloodthirsty robot rent-a-cops who hunt teenagers trapped in a mall?

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Chopping Mall was the product of Concorde Pictures, owned by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. The film was directed by Jim Wynorski and produced by Roger’s wife, Julie. Wynorski wrote the screenplay with Steve Mitchell, who was also the second unit director.

The initial concept was a movie about a killer in a mall, with the writers planning to make the killer a phantom, until Wynorski had another thought: how about killer robots?

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The script was partly based on an obscure 1973 TV movie called Trapped, in which guard dogs hound a man locked inside a department store after hours. But the main influence on both the screenplay and the look of the robots was a Wynorski favorite from his youth, Gog (1954), a sci-fi film about robots created by the U.S. government, whose control is overtaken by aliens who turn the machines into murderers.

For Chopping Mall, visual effects wiz Robert Short was hired to build the robots, with Wynorski instructing him to produce an updated version of the machines seen in Gog.

GOG

Chopping Mall was shot in just 22 days during October 1984, with a budget of $800,000. It was filmed primarily at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Sherman Oaks, California (scenes in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Commando were also captured there).

The crew was given the run of the mall after it closed each day, and Wynorski and company took full advantage, even creating their own makeshift store, using every prop they could find to fill it. As the director later noted, the late night atmosphere of the mall was downright spooky, a perfect atmosphere for the motion picture he was creating.

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At the start of the film, the robots are pitched by a security company as the perfect force for evening patrolling at the mall, assuring, “absolutely nothing can go wrong.” The machines, dubbed “The Protectors” by the firm, would be connected to the mall’s mainframe computer, programmed to detain—not kill—any intruders.

Of course, in Chopping Mall, things don’t go according to plan.

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Eight teenagers, some of whom are employees at the shopping haven, stay late to party. Meanwhile, an electrical storm has shorted out the mainframe computer, turning the robots from guardians into executioners.

Soon the teens—with the doors of the mall locked until daybreak, and the phones out of commission thanks to the storm—are on the run.

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A notable feature of B-movie cinema is the incorporation of many different genres into a single film, and Chopping Mall is no exception. On the surface, this is a science fiction flick, but Wynorski also integrated elements of action movies, teen sex comedies, slasher films, and spaghetti westerns.

To the scfi-fi/horror fan, Chopping Mall most resembles Dawn Of The Dead (1978), as it also concerns individuals trapped inside a mall, stalked by a seemingly unstoppable force.

DAWN OF THE DEAD

As Wynorski noted, the Galleria proved to be a shadowy, ominous setting, with the dim lighting adding to the menacing look of the robots as they whiz around the mall (the ‘bots were actual functioning units, with a top speed of eight mph). An animation technique known as rotoscoping, the only post-production effect used, adds to the cartoon-ish aspects of the film.

Chuck Cirino’s killer synth score also plays a major role in contributing to the overall mood of the picture (the soundtrack was recently re-released on vinyl, but is already out of print (you can still find copies on Amazon).

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The cast ain’t half bad either, with standouts like John Terlesky as the obnoxious gum chewer, Mike; and Kelli Maroney as the “Final Girl,” Alison Parks. And, wow, Maroney and her fellow female co-stars sure could scream like their lives literally depended on it (even Jamie Lee Curtis would be impressed).

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B-movie cinema fans will get a kick out of the cameo appearances by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, who reprise their characters from Eating Raoul (1982), as well as Corman veteran, Dick Miller.

PAUL BARTEL AND MARY WARONOV

Prior to release, the working title of R.O.B.O.T.S. was changed to Killbots. The film tanked upon arrival. When Wynorski and others at Concorde Pictures met to discuss what to do after this initial failure, someone changing a light bulb blurted out, “Why don’tcha call it ‘Chopping Mall’?”

Roger Corman loved the new title, and the movie did very well upon re-release. At the time, audiences seemed to get the tongue-in-cheek humor, and today viewers can appreciate that Wynorski and company simply set out to make a fun, entertaining motion picture—and accomplished just that.

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Having said that, there is the temptation to fall down the rabbit hole into deeper analysis of the film. There’s the “darker side of consumption” angle, as well as a long tradition in science fiction books and movies of exploring the (some would say paranoid) idea that artificial intelligence will one day progress to a point that results in computers taking over the world. I don’t think the making of such grand statements was the goal with Chopping Mall, but Wynorski and Mitchell did forsee the coming of crime fighting robots.

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“Absolutely nothing can go wrong.”

Jim Wynorski has gone on to direct over 100 movies, including other pictures for Roger Corman, like the remake of Not Of This Earth (1988) with Traci Lords, which we told you about here.

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As for the exploding head gag — borrowed from Scanners (1981) — this was a brilliant piece of B-movie filmmaking, guaranteed to attract notice. When the trailer aired outside a theatre on Broadway in New York City, passers by would stop and watch it four or five times in a row, just to see actress Suzee Slater’s head blown to smithereens by a laser-shooting robot.

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About Bart Bealmear

Bart Bealmear is a librarian, archivist, bandleader, and freelance writer. He has contributed to a number of online media outlets, including All Music and Dangerous Minds. His rock band is a collective known as The Blind Doctors, featuring a cast of Detroit-area musicians.
  • Jim Wynorski

    Thank you for such a glowing review. Just two side notes, the picture was produced by Roger Corman’s wife, Julie, not his daughter. And the the star of the movie is actress Kelli Maroney who played a character named Alison Parks. All the other stuff is spot on. I appreciate all your kind words. Jim W.

  • Munkiman

    Thanks so much, Jim!! We’re sorry!!