31 Days of Fright: Chopping Mall

Rejected title for Chopping Mall: I, Killbot.

Rejected title for Chopping Mall: I, Killbot.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! My most recently viewed movie was Chopping Mall, directed by Jim Wynorski (director of such classics as Not of This Earth and countless softcore treasures as Alabama Jones and the Busty Crusade). The film was another request from donor Martha Hunter, who, if you’ll remember, also recommended Re-Animator. During the viewing of this movie, I was joined by my girlfriend, Meg, who (luckily) only half-paid attention to the film’s events. Chopping Mall was rented from the good people at Queen Video.

What happens:

Chopping Mall is a fairly simple exploitation horror flick. If I were to rename it Paul Blart: Mall Robocop, it wouldn’t be unfitting. Basically, eight young white people are trapped overnight in a mall with robot security guards. Mayhem ensues. The film opens with a promotional video for Secure-tronics, a new mall security service. A burglar smashes his way in a jewellery store and robs it of a few diamond necklaces. Out of nowhere, a robot – looking a bit like Nintendo’s R.O.B. with a tank tread for legs or a squatter Johnny Five with less personality – arrives and instructs the lawbreaker to surrender himself. The burglar shoots the robot multiple times with his pistol, to no avail. He dashes through the mall, but can’t outrun the security bot, who fires a taser into his back, subduing him.

The promotional video ends and Dr. Stan Simon (Paul Coufos), head of Secure-tronics, introduces the assembled crowd to three units of the Protector 2000, the robots featured in the film. With these robots, combined with the steel doors that lock down the mall at night, Simon assures the crowd that Park Plaza will be the safest mall in the state. Two of the audience – Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, reprising their Eating Raoul roles – are not entirely convinced. “The one in the middle has an unpleasant ethnic quality,” Paul notes. But other crowd members have more valid concerns. For one, how will the Protector 2000s distinguish between actual trespassers and employees working after hours. Simon has an answer of that: each mall employee will be issued an ID badge, which the security robots can recognize with their laser eyes. Then the opening credits of Chopping Mall begin, complete with a note that the “Killbots” were “created by Robert Short.” (Perhaps some unintentional foreshadowing there.)

Chopping Mall not only embodies our greatest fears, but also our deepest fantasies, such as sleeping in the beds in a department store.

Chopping Mall not only embodies our greatest fears, but also our deepest fantasies, such as sleeping in the beds inside a department store.

Alison (Alison Parks) and Suzie (Barbara Crampton) are two friends that work in a short-order barbecue joint in the mall. During their shift, Suzie tries to convince Alison to join her later at a party that will be – no word of a lie – awesome to the max. Little do they know that a powerful electrical storm brewing outside aims to dash all their max-awesome times to pieces. Lightning strikes the mall a number of times and causes the main computer that controls the security bots to overload. The technician, with a cigarette dangling from his lip – clearly the model for Samuel Jackson’s character in Jurassic Park – seems to keep it under control. That may have been wishful thinking, though, for when the technician delves into his pornographic magazine, a robot hand bursts through the centrefold, karate chopping him to death. (Clearly, this is a cautionary tale about consuming pornography while on the job.)

The film cuts to the Furniture King store, which, unbeknownst to the manager, is about to become the site of a raucous after-hours party. The nebbish Ferdy (Tony O’Dell), nephew of the manager, is already have misgivings about using his uncle’s store as party central, but his cooler friends – the gum-snapping dirtbag Mike (John Terlesky) and nondescript Greg (Nick Segal) convince him it will all be okay. “Okay, okay,” Ferdy agrees dejectedly. “Let’s party.” Outside, in the middle of the rain-less electrical storm, married and mechanically inclined couple Rick (Russell Todd) and Linda (Karrie Emerson), attempt to restart their stalled tow truck. Linda succeeds in restarting the engine and they drive off into the mall parking lot, heading for the same mall party. Joe-Cool Mike visits his girlfriend Leslie (Suzee Slater) and gropes her while she’s working at the clothing store. Her dad and store owner, Mr. Todd (Arthur Roberts), sidles up to the two of them and casts disapproving glances at her choice of companion.

Back in the computer room, a second technician enters, ready to relieve the first of monitor duty. But the first technician, Marty, is nowhere to be found. Thinking Marty just ducked out early, the second technician sits down at the computer and begins to read slightly higher-minded literature: a science fiction anthology. Two of the security robots share a knowing glance and, in no time, shoot him in the back of the neck with a dart. Don’t worry about the dead technicians, though, because it’s ten o’clock and the party in Furniture King is in full swing – the eight-person party, that is! People are dancing to a song called “Streetwalkin’,” and couples are making out everywhere. Ferdy pops his collar in the washroom and attempts to make himself look a little more hip. The Protector 2000s begin their patrol of the mall grounds.

Being a custodian in Chopping Mall is almost as dangerous as being a gardener in Borgman.

Being a custodian in Chopping Mall is almost as dangerous as being a gardener in Borgman.

As the night progresses, most of the couples – Linda and Rick, Suzie and Greg, Leslie and Mike – start to have sex on the furniture floor models. (Everyone’s greatest fantasy!) Alison and Ferdy, however, are having some good, clean fun, watching monster movie about Crab-People on a model television. Alison and Ferdy really start to hit it off, and she removes the nerdy Ferdy’s glasses, revealing the stud underneath. Downstairs, a custodian (Dick Miller) is busy mopping up vomit in the food court. Two other custodians walk by, teasing him. The custodian toils away until one of the security bots rolls up behind him and knocks over his mop bucket, pouring water all over the floor. The custodian yells at the robot, complaining that the mall never should have purchased them, when the robot fires out a taser into the puddle at his feet. There’s a delayed response, but eventually it sparks and the custodian is electrocuted. “Thank you. Have a nice day,” the robot says in its digital baritone.

Post-sex, Leslie needs a cigarette – a particular brand of cigarette: Virgin Lights. She sends Mike down to the cigarette machine. While entering change, Mike is accosted by one of the robot security guards. Mike flashes his ID badge and jokes, “Klaatu barada nikto.” (The robots do look a little bit like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still.) The robot, in return, fires a tranquilizer dart at Mike, and, once he falls the floor, reaches out to his throat with its pincer arm. Realizing Mike has been gone a long time, Leslie leaves the Furniture King store in her underwear to try to find him. In the dark corridor that holds the cigarette machine, she finds Mike lying on the ground. Thinking he’s fallen asleep, she tries to shake him awake, an action that reveals his neck has been slashed. Blood gushes from his throat and Leslie runs away. The security bot chases her, firing lasers (where did those come from?). Leslie finally reaches the Furniture King just as her head is blown apart by the robot’s laser blast. The head explosion happens in full view of her friends, witnessing the mayhem from behind locked glass doors.

The partygoers have no time to mourn, though, as two of the Protector 2000 bots smash their way through the glass doors and open fire inside the store, exploding beds and television sets left, right, and centre. The young people lock themselves in the stock room and barricade the door with furniture. Outside, the thick metal security doors begin to roll into place. Hearing their activation, Greg announces, “Those security doors don’t open until six.” Ferdy also discovers that the computer system has shut down the telephone lines, as well. The six of them are trapped in the mall, overnight, with no way to communicate with the outside world. Alison points out an air vent in the ceiling. The group could escape through the air ducts and into the automotive garage, where they’d be safe. The ladies are boosted up into the air duct first, but just as Alison is pulling herself up, the robots smash their way in and open fire. The gentlemen are forced to flee.

Alison, Suzie, and Linda crawl through the air ducts, noticing it’s much hotter than it should be. The robots must have realized they’re inside and must be smoking them out. Suzie, becoming increasingly claustrophobic, begins to panic. Greg, Nick, and Ferdy, safely out of danger for the moment, realize they need to arm themselves. They head to the mall’s sporting goods store, Peckinpah’s (get it?), and load up on pistols, shotguns, … even an AK-47. They enter the mall courtyard, armed to the teeth, and Nick fires off a round into the air to summon the robots. One arrives quickly, and the three boys open fire. Ferdy rolls a small propane tank under the robot’s tank tread, and Nick shoots it with his shotgun, causing a large explosion. One robot down, two to go.

Chopping Mall clearly takes place in an open-carry state.

Chopping Mall clearly takes place in an open-carry state.

Having arrived in the automotive garage, Suzie immediately has misgivings. They left the boys to fend for themselves. Greg could be hurt, she pleads to her two travelling companions. Linda and Alison reluctantly agree to join her and return to the mall. But before they go, they’re going to do a bit of shopping: they create industrial-strength Molotov cocktails from gasoline cans in the garage, and empty the joint of road flares. Meanwhile, the previously-thought-dead robot left in the courtyard, like Jason at the beginning of every Friday the 13th, slowly grinds its gears back to life. Back inside the mall, the three women test out one of their gasoline bombs, which – like a Michael Bay movie – makes a large explosion, but doesn’t do much else. Fleeing from the seemingly unstoppable robots, Suzie is shot in the calf by the robot’s laser. She drops to the floor, unable to get to her feet again. Her friends Linda and Alison hide behind benches and plants, frozen in fear. The robot then shoots the gas can Suzie was carrying, causing Suzie to explode into flame.

The three men arrive and Greg, seeing Suzie’s horrible fate, flies into a rage, shooting wildly at the security bot. The five survivors run from the robot. Rick manages to devise a booby trap of propane tanks at the bottom of the mall elevator. The killbot uses the elevator to descend to the ground floor and Rick makes a daring leap across from the second floor. His friends open fire on the propane tank, causing the elevator to explode most magnificently. “Nice shot,” Ferdy praises Alison. “Dad’s a Marine,” she explains. Two of the robots are (seemingly) dead, but there’s a third one out there, Rick notes. (Why he knows how many security bots the mall has isn’t questioned.) The five friends hole up in a department store in the dark, and Linda tallies how much the group will owe in property damage, should they ever survive the night. Greg, still reeling from Suzie’s death, begins to turn on his friends. He blames Alison and Linda for leaving the safe garage and starts to become a little unhinged.

Defusing the tense situation (which Greg is making way tenser), Ferdy devises a plan. There’s a master computer to the mall on the third level. If they find it and destroy it, the robot security should shut down. “Computer, huh?” grunts Greg. “Let’s trash the fucker.” Greg leads the charge, sprinting recklessly ahead. He turns at the top of the escalator to goad his friends into running faster. But while his back is turned, a robot seizes his arm and tosses him three floors below, where he lands with an unpleasant thud. The remaining four young folks then spot a second robot – one of the ones they thought had been destroyed. There are still two of them! They scurry to a department store protected by a roll-up security gate. The group manages to damage the bottom and crawl underneath, but Alison’s arm is wounded by a robot’s laser blast in their escape. They lock the security shutter from the other side, knowing full well that it won’t be a barrier to the Protector 2000 for long.

Then they play the waiting game, trapped on the second floor of the department store while the security robot downstairs burns its way through the metal security gate with a fine laser beam. Finally, they hear the robot enter below and quickly throw together a plan. They assemble a group of mannequins in front of a large mirror and wait for the robot to arrive. Hiding behind the mannequins, Rick and Ferdy shoot at their attacker (even though the film has already established Alison is the best shot). One of the robot’s laser beams bounces off the mirror and bounces back, causing the bot to short-circuit. Malfunctioning, the robot fires wildly, killing Linda. Rick, inconsolable, drives a security golf cart directly into the overloading robot and shoots it. He, too, is fried and joins linda in death. But his kamikaze attack seems to have destroyed that robot. Only Alisons and Ferdies are left alive, and they race off to find this legendary computer.

Shot clearly paralleling the Cabbage Patch riots of the early 1980s.

Shot clearly paralleling the Cabbage Patch riots of the early 1980s.

Alison and Ferdy opt to split up (even though Ferdy was pretty confident that was a bad idea a few scenes ago). The one remaining robot sneaks up behind Alison mid-search and snaps at her with its pincer arms (much like the Crab-People she watched on TV earlier). Alison screams for Ferdy, who arrives at the other end of the room and opens fire on the robot. His gunfire somewhat damages the robot, but angers it more, and it chases Ferdy out into the mall. Out of ammunition, Ferdy throws his pistol at the robot, then tosses a fire extinguisher at the machine. The robot lifts the heavy extinguisher and launches it right back at Ferdy, nailing him in the gut. Ferdy collapses to the floor and the robot inspects his body. “Thank you. Have a nice day,” the robot commands, quoting the line it delivers whenever a victim is killed.

Alison, crestfallen, runs for her life. She enters a pet store and hides beneath the shelves. The robot enters like a bull in a china shop, sending terrariums of tarantulas and snakes crashing to the floor. The robot patrols the store, and Alison tries not to make a peep as the spiders crawl and snakes slither all over her body. The robot eventually departs and Alison goes to leave. She’s startled by a bird (of all things) and cries out, bringing the robot right back to the store. Alison evades the robot by hanging over the ledge that overlooks the first floor’s courtyard. However, she has to hang from the rungs of the barrier on the third floor for so long, she loses her grip and plummets to the tent below, which mostly breaks her fall. It kind of breaks her leg, too, though, and she must crawl along the mall floor to a hardware store.

In the hardware store, Alison limps around, dumping all the paint she can find into a massive multi-chromatic pond on the store’s floor. The robot sees her at work and smashes its way into the store. Alison slides out on the paint and, then, using a road flare she’d secreted in her bra, lights the very flammable paint. “Have a nice day!” she quips as the store becomes a conflagration. Ferdy, who remarkable survived, pops up on the third floor and praises her marksmanship again. They embrace in the empty mall. “The nerds win,” Meg declared.

With Chopping Mall about due for a remake, can we be that far off from a Black Friday horror movie?

With Chopping Mall about due for a remake, can we be that far off from a Black Friday horror movie?

Takeaway points:

  • Chopping Mall is kind of like the Platonic ideal of an exploitation film. For one, its poster (and VHS cover) promise a film far greater than the one you will see. For two, the film features gratuitous nudity that serves no other purpose than that of juvenile titillation. For three, the movie is so simple, it entirely ditches the notion of any sort of subplot, instead opting for a straight line. Robots try to kill young people; some of them die. And the film also features a few … or maybe just one … impressive special effect or scene, and is then stuffed with filler to pad out the running time. The perfect exploitation film. Many people criticized Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof when the Grindhouse double-bill was released for being really talky and boring. But they failed to realize that his film was a more accurate homage to exploitation films than Roberto Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, as it was more similar to the films it referenced: long, boring stretches punctuated by a couple scenes of startling or awe-inspiring violence.
  • For a movie entirely set in a mall, Chopping Mall has very little to say about consumerism or Western capitalism. (This is no Dawn of the Dead, folks.) There’s no real hint of social commentary in Chopping Mall. That said, if you think about it, the young people trapped in the mall are mostly mall employees. The killbots are machines that have replaced human mall security. And these robots then go on to outright kill other mall employees. Perhaps Chopping Mall is a not-so-subtle statement on the economic effect of workplace mechanization.
  • The film was produced by Julie Corman, wife of B-movie king, Roger Corman. But Julie Corman was a real mover and shaker in the world of cheap exploitation, as well. Among some of the other films she’s produced are Boxcar Bertha, Candy Stripe Nurses, Crazy Mama, and Brain Dead (the one with Bills Pullman and Paxton). This explains a number of things (beyond it being the Platonic exploitation movie). Namely, the in-joke about Roger’s Little House of Pets (Julie’s husband directed the original Little Shop of Horrors) and the movie posters for things like Q: The Winged Serpent that cover every free surface in the mall. The film that Alison and Ferdy chastely watch – Attack of the Crab Monsters – is also a Roger Corman production.
  • There are eight principal characters in Chopping Mall and every single one of them is white, heterosexual, and able-bodied. Frankly, they’re difficult to tell apart. (Give one of them a moustache or red hair, for goodness’ sake.) While I would like to think that if Chopping Mall were made today, they’d diversify the cast a bit, I think that’s expecting too much of the movie industry. (At one point, I fantasized about how neat it would be if the cast of Saved by the Bell – who at least had one black and one Latino character among its number) were the ones being tormented by robot mall security.
  • Chopping Mall features my very favourite type of end credit sequence: one that shows the actors in-scene, so you can readily identify who played who. (For an example of what I’m talking about, see this epic example from Kill Bill: Vol. 2.)

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: The best thing about Chopping Mall is its title. There’s not even any chopping in the film – the killer robots literally have no tools or weapons with which to chop! I am a fan of many a bad movie, but Chopping Mall was just a little too “meh” in all the wrong places. Truly terrible is the only fair categorization.

Hit segment of Maury Povich in the 1980s: Cool teen or mom?

Hit segment of Maury Povich in the 1980s: Cool teen or mom?

Best outfit: Though I suspect the character of Alison is supposed to be in her early twenties (at the oldest), one has to commend her early adoption of middle-aged yuppie style, complete with pastel plaid shirt and sweater tied over the shoulders. And this is her party outfit.

Best line: “I guess I’m not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” – Linda (“We all feel that way sometimes,” Meg agreed.)

Best kill: Most of the kills in this movie are unremarkable. Poorly animated electrocution? Falling from a great height? A dart in the neck? Give us a break. Only the completely unexpected head explosion, when poor Leslie’s head is blown to smithereens, stands out. It seems like it came from another (better) movie entirely. The filmmakers knew we would like it so much, they run it again during the credits.

Unexpected cameo: Chopping Mall is like a who’s who of B-movie journeymen and women. Not only do you have Dick Miller (who we saw previously in The Howling) as a custodian, you also have Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov reprising their Eating Raoul roles. Even Angus Scrimm (a.k.a. The Tall Man from the Phantasm movies) has a bit part. Rodney Eastman, who is best known to horror fans as Joey from Nightmare on Elm Streets 3 and 4, also appears as the criminal in the promotional video that opens the film.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Cigarettes only cost $1.25 in 1986! And even then, Mike found that way too expensive.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Secure-tronics. “Fuck Fuchsia, It’s Friday,” would be their first single.

Next up: Society (1989).