F*CK, SCARE, KILL: An Autopsy of Teen Horror CHOPPING MALL

F*CK, SCARE, KILL: An Autopsy of Teen Horror CHOPPING MALL

Horrorific content by Jessica Gomez on April 06th, 2021 | Culture | Slasher, Survival, Sci-Fi, B-Horror, 80's Horror

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A monthly column dissecting teen horror movies.

In 1986, writer/director Jim Wynorski teamed up with Julie Corman, the wife of his mentor, B-horror legend Roger Corman, for a mall killer movie that would be his second feature. Wynorski’s idea leaned...unconventional. Instead of another slasher, which had been dominating horror since Halloween’s arrival in 1978, Wynorski came up with something not entirely new, but certainly a fresh idea for a mall setting: killer robots.

Chopping Mall, originally released as Killbots, begins with a mall in California that is apparently experiencing so much crime that the people who run the mall decide to invest in three robots trained in security to keep the area safe. These are not cool-looking or high-functioning robots, either. They’re super slow and can barely get out their messages (voiced by Wynorski) - think the robot from the FRIENDS episode about Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E - but they are unaffected by guns and, though their tech is extremely basic, they are somehow able to apprehend criminals. So instead of hiring actual security, the mall owners decide that they will purchase these machines and then have some...scientists?...in some secret back room of the mall keep watch over them to make sure they’re not malfunctioning. Spoiler alert: they malfunction.

So after the robots are put on the payroll, some teenagers who work in various stores in the mall decide to have a party after hours with some drinking, horror movies, and hooking up. (Can someone who worked in a mall verify if this was something that actually happened? It looked pretty fun, minus the murder.) Everyone is coupled up, including a very young and loveable Barbara Crampton, who was fresh off Re-Animator and has gone on to star in dozens of notable horror movies. There’s also some random married couple in their 20s there to have sex, for reasons unknown. Storylines often look like they’re going somewhere and end unexpectedly. What was expected was the gratuitous nudity.

Unfortunately for them, they don’t take the new security system seriously. The new rule is that you better get your ass out at closing time because the mall is automatically locked down like a prison. I don’t know what was happening at this mall; you’d think it was in the middle of a war zone. Anyway, the teens throw caution to the wind and avoid the eyeline of the robots to keep themselves out of harm’s way. Except this time, the robots are out for blood, and no one is expecting it when they suddenly become self-aware and begin to hunt the kids.

If you want to read further into it, the screenplay was actually ahead of its time for its implications that technology would eventually replace jobs that real humans should keep, and that AI has a way of going awry. But the robots’ growing capabilities were clearly satirical; no one could believe that this is how robots actually operate, and though the film had a decent budget at $800,000, the special effects were extremely campy, and the robots looked like something made in high school robotics.

This was a Fast Times at Ridgemont High/sex comedy type of movie for B-horror fans, even starring Kelli Maroney from Fast Times (she was cast so that Wynorski could try to date her), and sharing a set location at the Sherman Oaks Mall. (Though I doubt anyone would say that Chopping Mall is anywhere in the same league as Fast Times.) Drawing inspiration from Corman and The Terminator, Wynorski concocted a film that had the colorful, low-budget effects that we all expect from B horror - complete with an actual head exploding out of nowhere - and combined that with a number of gun and fire-related explosions to achieve scenes that were completely over-the-top, bringing action into a movie that was otherwise about teenagers trying to get laid. 

Killbots was released theatrically in March 1986 and was less than successful, but the film did better as a VHS under the new name Chopping Mall - likely due to its name and cover art alluding to it being more slasher and less killer robot. However, it did not gain cult status until years later, as a fun and cheesy “good bad” movie, rather than straight horror. But its canondom in horror should not be ignored. Much of the third season of Stranger Things was heavily influenced by Chopping Mall, from the mall setting to the ridiculous firework display, and Roger Corman, arguably one of the most influential B-horror filmmakers, had a large hand in advising Wynorski on how the film should be made. Short video documentaries abound, and the film’s influence was explored in the 80s horror documentary In Search of Darkness.
Rights were acquired years ago to remake Chopping Mall with a supernatural twist, but so far, nothing has come to fruition. This was incredibly-fake-looking lightning in a bottle; this movie could have only been made in the 80s with just the right cast and crew. Remaking it would be a mistake, but, that’s never stopped anyone before. I’m sure in time we’ll be seeing someone chop apart this classic.

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