Absolutely nothing can go wrong.
Only a 1980s horror could have a killer robot plot and intentionally gloss over artificial intelligence themes for lightning. Who wants a ton of exposition talking about hubristic irony when you can let Mother Nature provide a malfunction? Rather than show humanity as its own worst enemy flying too close to the sun, supernaturally sci-fi-inspired sentries wreak havoc with little more than a bolt of electricity flipping the switch that transforms these programmed protectors into autonomous predators. Now all you need is a few sex-crazed co-eds to use as live bait and the movie pretty much writes itself. So when Jim Wynorski agreed to put it together cheaply in exchange for the opportunity to direct, the heavy lifting became figuring out how gruesomely everyone should die.
Chopping Mall is thus more of a survivalist film than anything else considering the aforementioned glitch occurs well before the eight kids who serve as prey lock themselves in this newly-outfitted shopping center’s furniture store for some late-night hanky-panky. Wynorski and co-writer Steve Mitchell use a prologue to get the ball rolling wherein the store-owners (and us) are told what this state-of-the-art technology is capable of doing: shoot lasers, throw TASER nodes, and inflict puncture damage with its metallic fingers. We watch a demonstration of the robots’ submission techniques and ID-card recognition system to differentiate criminals from employees while those in the crowd (namely Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) sarcastically mutter their skepticism under their breath before disappearing once the plot-specific electrical storm manifests itself outside.
So here we are in the darkened mall with three high-powered machines gone haywire patrolling the promenades (one for each of the three retail floors) and four couples canoodling in apparent safety behind the safety glass of Ferdy Meisel’s (Tony O’Dell) uncle’s business. He’s only back there because his co-workers Greg (Nick Segal) and Mike (John Terlesky) hope he’ll keep his mouth shut about their party if their respective girlfriends Suzie (Barbara Crampton) and Leslie (Suzee Slater) set him up on a blind date (Kelli Maroney‘s Alison). The married Rick (Russell Todd) and Linda (Karrie Emerson) stop by for a much-needed escape from their own lives owning an auto repair shop off-site and in turn offer a bit of maturity the other minimum wage kids lack.
All it takes is for one to step outside their insulated confines for the “killbots” to hone in and open fire. One by one they fall victim to their seemingly invincible pursuers after smart plans (like crawling through the air ducts) are replaced by dumb alternatives (running for their lives while firing off automatic rifles that they’ve already seen fail to make a dent) almost as a rule. Wynorski has very obviously thought about what someone could feasibly find within this environment of sports equipment, hardware, and department stores and lets his characters travel from one to the next while fear increases to the point where impatience becomes their cause of death. Killing a sentry with explosive force is just a distraction as another sneaks up from behind.
There’s some good ingenuity in play to offset what are some real bonehead maneuvers, though. For instance: using an elevator to create a kill box for one of these machines reveals Ferdy’s talent at circuit boards while Greg’s macho adrenaline rush has him storming up an escalator with no regard to the fact that his murderer could be waiting to ambush. Since nothing about Chopping Mall would lead you to think things should be more solidly grounded in authenticity (the lasers are rectangular light pulses added in post and devoid of the depth perception necessary to know whether they hit or missed their target), the filmmakers don’t even pretend that they are. The dead are instantly forgotten and logistics (these giant robots balance on escalator steps) completely ignored.
And while the end result would never win any awards—it was a commercial and critical flop upon release—this unabashed stupidity has allowed it to stand the test of time as a cult favorite anyway. At 77-minutes with shoddy effects and horror schlock earmarks such as nudity, one-liners (“Let’s send [them] a Rambo-gram”), and a distinct lack of middle ground when it comes to emotions (I love when a small success can earn a big grin despite best friends having violently lost their lives mere minutes earlier), it’s the perfect vehicle for game crowds to laugh with impunity. It’s because it never takes itself too seriously that we feel as though we’re in on the joke rather than derisively mocking someone’s hard work. There’s a huge difference.
Would I have liked an actual plot besides actors running and shooting without direction? You bet. Motivations are so non-existent that the idea to shut off the computers keeping the “killbots” online and connected to the mall’s infrastructure doesn’t arrive until it’s almost too late and even then only to get those who are left moving forward since that control center is barely more than a device. Because nothing happens for any reason other than prolonging the runtime to theatrical release length, details like women taking off their tops (getting the teenage boy demographic excited prints money) and heads exploding are included solely to mask how meaningless the circumstances are despite a conceit offering so much potential. If any horror could benefit from a remake, this is it.
Watched in conjunction with Season Six of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.