I seriously cannot recommend this movie highly enough. At a lean 75 mins, it never lets up, and any b-movie fan will have a big grin plastered on his face all the way through. Not only that, but anyone who went to high school in the 80s will find himself very nostalgic for the feathered hair, the ripped jeans, the headbands and the pastel sweaters, not to mention the days when all you looked forward to was a weekend at the mall, worshipping at the temple of materialism. And if that's not enough, there's a deeper philosophical level the director flirts with--have we reached a point as a society where property is so much more valuable than human life, that we're willing to give OBJECTS the power of life and death over people, in the name of protecting THINGS? Heady stuff, and makes you think, even while you're enjoying the 'splosions and n00dz.
After I watched the 1986 sci-fi/horror flick Chopping Mall (also known by its original, more accurate but much less fun title Killbots), I let it percolate for a couple of days before revisiting my notes to jot down my thoughts. There was just so much to absorb, so much to ruminate over--I didn't want to rush things. When I looked back at my viewing notes I was amazed to find I had taken nearly 5 pages worth--but then again, a movie as rich in subtext and cultural significance as this rewards close study.
The premise is as surprising in its prescience as it is in its execution: at the height of Mall Culture in the United States (which is to say, the mid-1980s), the problem of mercantile stop-loss is one of the most pressing of the day. With leather coat and bandanna-wearing thugs constantly going on window-smashing jewelry-grabbing sprees through even the most spacious and well-tended malls (as seen in a very informative and frightening pre-credits presentation film, produced by a cadre of Mall Security Specialists), something must be done to protect the valuable mall property from those nihilistic, synth-rock addled punk kids. Luckily, the company giving the presentation has the answer: Killbots.
Okay, so they're not called Killbots in the trade materials--they're called Protectors. They're designed to patrol the mall after hours, use non-lethal force to detain would-be robbers, and work with the automated phone system to call the police once the threat is neutralized. Security badges with bar codes enable them to tell friend from foe. Looking like a cross between a riding mower, a Star Wars cantina droid, and a tank, these guys are also armed with lasers (for getting through structural obstacles), strong pincer claws, near indestructible armor. They're assisted by bank-vault quality security doors that won't let anyone in or out after closing. It's a foolproof system. As the company representative helpfully informs us, "NOTHING COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG!"
Anyway, Park Plaza mall (coincidentally, the same name as the mall in the town where I grew up! Bonus!) has decided enough is enough, and has commissioned three Protectors for their security system, one for each level. Unfortunately on the night the Protectors are scheduled to go online, a freak lightning storm (God's monkey wrench) electrifies the control antennae and scrambles the Protectors' programming in ways that will become horrifyingly clear all too soon; once again demonstrating that man was never meant to wield such awesome scientific power, particularly not for mall security.
As fate would have it (Oh, wicked Fate! Why do you torment us so?), on that VERY SAME NIGHT a group of fun-loving twentysomethings...er, teens, I mean, TEENS...who work at the mall have decided to stay after hours and throw a party in one of the girls' father's furniture store. Our motley band: well, there's the furniture store heiress and her Jock boyfriend (played by John Terlesky, one of the truly great gum-chewers in cinematic history), the newly-married couple struggling to start their lives together, the carefree party girl (played deliciously by an enthusiastic young Barbara Crampton, of Re-Animator fame) and her guy, and then the blind-date virginal nerdy couple, Allison and Ferdy. (Rhymes with "Nerdy." It's too easy.) Everything's fine as long as they stay in the store, but when the heiress decides to send Jocko out for some smokes (to the cig machine by the video arcade--ah, the 80s!), the scrambled Killbots decide it's time to secure the mall--FOR GOOD.
This movie is nothing but fun. Seriously nonstop entertainment from one end to the other. Director Jim Wynorski (who also helmed such b-movie classics as Deathstalker II and Ghoulies IV) obviously knows he's making a silly movie obviously knows he's making a silly movie, and trusts the audience to know it too; however, he never has his characters act like they think they're in a silly movie, instead having them all play the over-the-top premise completely straight, which adds loads to the fun. The one-liners fly fast and furious ("Fuck the fuschia! It's Friday!"; "Let's send these fuckers a Rambo-gram!"), the b-movie in-jokes are great (stores named "Little Shop of Pets" and "Peckinpah's Sporting Goods," the latter of which is unsurprisingly an armory), and the tension is actually quite well built up.
While the effects are very b-movie 80s, they can be surprising in their effectiveness. For instance, after ambusing Jocko with stealth and subterfuge, the Killbots' all-out assault on the furniture store is shocking, horrifying, and epic. When the heiress falls victim to a demonstration of their destructive power, it's such a truly show-stopping scene that the audience suddenly realizes all bets are off; as do the trapped teens, who after a brief freak-out period turn to their own savage sides to take the fight back to the Bots. Who will win out--human or robot? The fate of the human race, not to mention safe commerce, lies in the balance!
I went and got a friend so that I could give this movie 5.5 thumbs--the .5 it lost was due to the fact that, despite it being a great title, there was no actual "chopping" in the movie. A small complaint, though, far outshone by the brilliance of the rest of the flick. See it soon; thank me later.
Note: Interestingly, this movie is often thought of as a low-budget rip-off of Robocop, since the themes of corporations protecting their interests at the expense of humanity are the same, and like Robocop, the Killbots punctuate their horrifying bursts of violence with inane friendly-policeman banter. (Memorably, when after a kill they say solicitously "Thank You! Have a nice day!") HOWEVER--Chopping Mall came out in 1986; Robocop in 1987. Paul Verhoeven, you were scooped!
Where've I Seen Them Before? Lead virgin and final girl Alison was played by Kelli Maroney, who before displaying her girl-next-door looks and track star speed here had starred as a zombie-fighting Valley girl in the 1984 cult classic, Night of the Comet. And good old Dick Miller brings his signature character Walter Paisley back from the dead for an electrifying cameo as a mall janitor. We need a new awesome-meter, this one is broke.