Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Film Appreciation - Killbots Are Online


Cody Hamman programs in his Film Appreciation for 1986's Chopping Mall.

When producer Julie Corman, wife of the legendary Roger Corman, wanted to make a movie that would combine two of the biggest pop culture draws of the 1980s - shopping malls and "dead teenager" flicks - into one film, she hired director Jim Wynorski (Sorority House Massacre II, Hard to Die, subject of the documentary Popatopolis) to bring the idea to cinematic life.

Tasked with coming up with an idea that would revolve around a group of young people being stalked and killed in a shopping mall after hours, Wynorski and his co-writer Steve Mitchell (who would go on to write episodes of the G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Jem cartoons) opted not to do what so many other filmmakers were doing at the time and make a straightforward slasher movie. Rather, they drew inspiration for their story from the 1954 sci-fi film Gog, which featured two robots (called Gog and Magog) that go on the attack in an underground research bunker when they fall under the control of enemy radio signals. Wynorski and Mitchell decided to set loose a trio of killer robots - thus the film's working title of Killbots - on their group of unlucky mallrats.

These "killbots" are part of Secure-Tronics' Protector 101 series, designed to patrol the Park Plaza Mall as non-lethal security guards, zooming around the mall floors on their tank treads, neutralizing any trespassers with sleep darts and tasers, capable of grabbing things with their pincer arms and of cutting through obstructions, if necessary, with lazers. It's unlikely that anyone would ever manage to break into the Park Plaza Mall in the first place, given that the entrances are blocked by steel security doors at closing, doors which are time locked from midnight until dawn, but it's comforting to the owners to have the Protector robots around just in case.

Unfortunately, Secure-Tronics didn't prepare for the possibility that their computer system might be struck by lightning at any given time during a storm. That's exactly what happens, and with their systems fried the security robots immediately embark on a killing spree, brutally murdering everyone they come across.

On an average night, the only people the Killbots would encounter in the mall after hours are their computer technicians and maybe a late-working janitor. But on this particular night, a group of eight young people have decided that the closed mall is the perfect venue for a night of partying, dancing, drinking, and having sex in the furniture store.

The movie plays by the standard rules of this type of picture, so you know the couples who have sex are in for some trouble, while the more reserved couple who have just been introduced and get to know each other by watching Attack of the Crab Monsters together are most likely to survive.

With a running time of just over 76 minutes, Chopping Mall is a masterpiece of economical storytelling. The Protector bots, their abilities, and the mall's security doors are all established with a presentation that takes up the first 5 minutes of the movie. The film is then propelled forward by a rock synth score by Chuck Cirino as characters are introduced and the after hours party set up. Just over eight and a half minutes in, lightning strikes the mall, and by the 10 minute mark the robots are killing people. As of minute 30, the killbots have begun their mission to pick off the group of partiers one-by-one, starting a struggle for survival that lasts the entire rest of the movie. 

The Killbots' programming is so screwed up that they still say "Thank you, have a nice day" after dispatching each of their victims.

Brutally murdered though most of them get, the group trapped in the mall do catch a break with the fact that, like the mall in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978), Park Plaza Mall includes a gun shop among its stores. Raiding Peckinpah's Sporting Goods, the characters are able to arm themselves with handguns and rifles, which really come in handy in the battle against the robots.

It didn't sell guns in reality, but the mall Wynorski and Corman landed for their filming location was perfect, the ultimate mall of the '80s, the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which was also featured in the likes of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Valley Girl, Commando, Innerspace, and Terminator 2. It's a glorious sight to behold for fans of '80s mall culture and architecture. And the Killbots really make a mess of the place.

Wynorski pitted against his homicidal machines a cool cast that includes Kelli Maroney, Re-Animator/Trancers II/You're Next's Barbara Crampton, Russell Todd of Friday the 13th Part 2 and He Knows You're Alone, and John Terlesky of The Allnighter, with cameos by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov (reprising their roles from 1982's Eating Raoul), Dick Miller as a janitor named Walter Paisley (also the name of his character in 1959's A Bucket of Blood), Gerrit Graham (Used Cars, Phantom of the Paradise), A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and 4's Rodney Eastman as a kid who is very obvious in his attempt to shoplift vinyl albums from the mall's record store Licorice Pizza, and Phantasm's Angus Scrimm as a man seen from a distance who asks a question at the Secure-Tronics presentation.

The concept is unique, the pace is quick, the action is plentiful, the characters are likeable, and the Killbots are totally awesome. The elements all mix together to make Chopping Mall a wonderfully entertaining movie.

It came out at the perfect time for me, hitting VHS and cable just as I was starting to become a huge horror fan. I got in a lot of viewings of Chopping Mall at that time, and have been a fan of this movie since I was a really young kid. I can still remember watching it when I was around three years old and being enthralled by the exploits of these Killbots. Back in those days, nearly every business tried to get in on the video rental boom, and I remember the Chopping Mall VHS box being on prominent display in the video rental section of a local grocery store. Every shopper would have to pass through the movie section to get to the aisles of food the store had to offer, and every time I passed through that section I would gawk at the cover of Chopping Mall and think of how cool that movie was. That grocery store was soon after converted into the town's new police station.

Chopping Mall is still a favorite of mine to this day and in my opinion it's an essential entry in the genre. I recommend it to all of my fellow horror fans, and especially those who have a particular fondness for the '80s, as I do.

In recent years, of course, there has been some talk of Chopping Mall being remade. Shockingly, word is that if the remake were to get made in its current form, the idea is to drop the Killbots and replace them with some sort of generic supernatural threat. How anyone could want to make a new version of Chopping Mall and not include the Killbots is beyond me. It's unthinkable. The Killbots deserve a return to the screen, and as machines they can be upgraded for the modern age. They can be rebooted. Bring the Killbots back!

Thank you, have a nice day.

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