Chopping Mall (1986) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The new episode of the WTF Happened to This Horror Movie video series looks back at the 1986 classic Chopping Mall

The 1980s were full of robots, lasers, odd fashion choices, and teen films, including the now cult film Chopping Mall (watch it HERE). In this 1986 sci-fi film, a group of teenage friends and mall workers end up stuck in the Mall after closing hours when a trio of security robots are deployed for the first time.

In the 80s, anything futuristic or with robots seemed to get greenlit with budgets of varying levels and quality of varying degrees. Some of these films took themselves very seriously, too seriously even. However, Chopping Mall was one of those films with the perfect mixture of low budget, the right talent in front of and behind the cameras, and the right level of seriousness to its content and how it was approached. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it doesn’t go full-on goofy, either. There is a “just right” aspect to the story and how it was brought to the screen that gave it legs well beyond its two theatrical releases, but it wasn’t always a hit.

Released initially as Killbots, the film failed at the box office upon its first release, so what happened that it is now a top choice film for many horror and sci-fi fans out there, especially those loving everything 80s? Well, it’s complicated, as is usually the case with films that first failed and eventually became cult favorites. Let’s start with a short history of how this film came to be. Reportedly produced by Roger Corman, a champion of odd sci-fi films and a man who has produced so many movies it’s hard to count them, the film was written by Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell, the story is written in 24 hours, and the script itself took 4 to 5 weeks to write and finish. The actual producer here is Julie Corman, who was requested to produce a film set in a mall by Vestron. The film itself was shot over 22 days, 20 days at the Mall and two days in a studio.

Chopping Mall

The Sherman Oaks Galleria, which served as a shooting location for many movies before and since Chopping Mall, was where the bulk of the film was shot, with the owner of the Mall being really into the idea of having it being filmed there while the head of security wasn’t a fan. Because of this and because of the limited budget, the film had to be shot at night, after closing time, to not disturb business. The budget for the film is reported to have been around $800,000 USD, a small amount even back in 1986, but a normal budget for a Roger Corman film, something director Wynorski expected and was more than willing and happy to work with.

This budget limitation could be a source of problems, but it seems to have become a source of creativity for the production, including for those creating the three on-screen robots, of which five were made. These robots were inspired by the 1954 film Gog and were voiced by the film’s director, saving some costs here. While Gog indeed inspired the robots, Wynorski has said that despite the resemblance of the plot to the 1973 film Trapped, it had no influence here as he had never seen it before writing Chopping Mall.

The budget limitations worked in favor of the special effects when it came to the robots, as they were made more realistic by using everyday items to build them, such as conveyor belts and wheelchair parts. The robots’ effects were all practical, with computer-generated effects added only for the lasers, something reasonably obvious while watching the film. Outside of the robots, the film’s only other special effects are for the characters’ deaths, and some of those are quite spectacular, like the fire death given to Suzie, played by Barbara Crampton.

The scene is a bit longer than one would expect and is done very well, something most of the practical effects have in common here. Also, real fire always looks better on screen than computer-generated fire, which we see more and more of these days due to the understandably safer side of it. However, this film shows the use of fire more than once, and every time, it looks great. The cast here is a big part of why this film is still catching the eye of horror fans these days, with Barbara Crampton and Kelli Maroney in the lead parts. The two of them are still active and Scream Queens in their own rights.

Chopping Mall Barbara Crampton Kelli Maroney

Joining them are Karrie Emerson, Tony O’Dell, Russell Todd, Nick Segal, John Terlesky, and Suzee Slater, who have had uneven careers since Chopping Mall, many of them disappearing from the screen not long after the release. That being said, the cast here is pretty good, with a few standout performances, one of them being Kelli Maroney, who gets a good amount of screen time here and who did most of her stunts for the film. Her work here makes her lead, and her dedication to the film shows through her character. Relating to her, the fact that director Jim Wynorski wanted to hire her because he wanted to date her comes off a tad creepy nowadays. Originally, the part of Alison was supposed to go to Dana Kimmell, who wasn’t interested in working on films with sexual content, so she was quickly replaced with Maroney. She was more open-minded about her films and performances.

At the time, a few of the cast members were somewhat of a draw at the box office, but their nostalgia appeal seems stronger these days than their box office power was then. As mentioned earlier, the film was originally released as Killbots, it went to theaters under that title in March of 1986, and it just didn’t perform. The producers blamed the film’s title and its poster art. It did look a bit odd, but they claimed that it looked like a kids’ film. They saw it more as an exploitation film, which nowadays also feels way off. This film is more correctly classified as a science fiction horror teen film. 1986 was the prime era for teen films, with plenty of them having been released recently and plenty more about to come out.

In terms of sci-fi horror, the subgenre was huge, but RoboCop had yet to hit theaters, and the robots in Chopping Mall owed more to the war robots in Short Circuit than the ED-209. The marketing of these films could have helped Killbots, but most likely, the presence of so many similar robots in different films may have created confusion. The release in March 1986 showed that something wasn’t quite right, and the film’s now cult status shows that it was most likely a mix of timing, approach, and cultural awareness.

The film was then re-edited with about 15 minutes cut out of it and retitled from Killbots to Chopping Mall before being rereleased in theaters on September 5th, 1986, in Pittsburgh and then on November 14 of the same year in New York City. This kind of release is something horror fans are used to these days, a few days here, a few days there, then build the hype online, expand the release, and get a huge return like what happened with Terrifier 2. However, the hype was harder to build back in the mid-1980s, without the internet, without social media, without much support for anything deemed different, and for things like horror and sci-fi. While big films like the Alien franchise got a major marketing push, smaller films like those released by Roger Corman, like Chopping Mall, didn’t have much budget for marketing, if any at all.

Word of mouth was something they could somewhat rely on, and specialized magazines helped a lot, but the exposure of such films was limited, and they often depended on theaters to take a chance on them and see if they were worth holding over for one more week, for two more weeks, and so on. Chopping Mall had already been released in March as Killbots and had not hit any sort of significant numbers, so the shortening of the film and its retitling gave it a second life, but that second life was quite limited. It was clear early on that the film’s home video release was going to be quite important to get it to a wider audience and to get it to make some money. On top of this, the box office contenders at the end of August and early September 1986 included Aliens, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Top Gun, Karate Kid Part II, and The Fly.

Chopping Mall Dick Miller

Let’s just say the competition was fierce, and they had better marketing budgets. However, the total cost of Chopping Mall standing at $800,000 USD did mean that it would be easier for it to make its money back, so the home video release could easily bring that money back to Vestron, who had it under their banner based on a deal they had with Julie Corman. The original home video release happened in 1987 from Vestron under one of their specialty labels called Lightning Video in the US; the rest of the world had to wait a bit longer for the film. In 2004, the film saw its first DVD release, and its second DVD release followed in 2012 as part of a set. The cult following was established at that point, and soon after, in 2016, the first Blu-Ray release of the film happened.

Chopping Mall really found its audience through the home video market, cable, and conventions where fans could get a few things related to the film here and there. Recently, the film seems to have seen a resurgence, and nostalgia brands look to be finally realizing there might be a market for collectibles and memorabilia for Chopping Mall; however, very few of what can be found seem to be officially licensed. In terms of sequels, making one was discussed after the second theatrical release, the release as Chopping Mall, in 1986, then again in the early 2000s with the original director tapped to come back to make it. Then in 2011, a remake almost happened with Rob Hall and Dry County Entertainment when they got the rights. The idea at the time was to turn the film into a supernatural story instead of sentient robots; something fans were not happy with. This, just like the sequel, never ended up happening. In terms of a sequel, something of an adaptation, sequel, or remake mix could possibly work now.

Still, a new crew involved in doing this would have to be extremely careful as not all the fans of the original are open to such a thing or anything new when it comes to their beloved film really. Considering the film is now almost 40 years old, a new release with a new scan of the negatives may be the way to go, bringing back the 15-minute cut-off between the release of the film as Killbots and its release as Chopping Mall. The original DVD release was transferred from the VHS release due to the originals being stuck in legal limbo. It may be time to see if those originals are available now; a new, super loaded, fancy rerelease could be successful. Recently, director James Wan has shown interest in remaking Chopping Mall, which may be a good idea and could help the film get an even better transfer and rerelease on blu and perhaps UHD.

Chopping Mall

Chopping Mall is now a cult film for many reasons, including its story, its cast, how fun it is, and how utterly 1980s it is. Also, the film has connections with so many other films, including a cameo from Angus Scrimm, credited as Lawrence Guy, in the part of Dr. Carrington and a cameo from Dick Miller as his character from A Bucket of Blood and cameos from Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel as their respective characters from Eating Raoul. Miller shows up after the robots turn ruthless, Woronov and Bartel turn up at the start of the film as part of the crowd listening to the presentation about how great the security robots will be for the Mall. Speaking of the Mall, Park Plaza Mall, as it’s known in the film, is actually two different malls: one for the exteriors and one for the interiors. The interiors, as mentioned before, were filmed at Sherman Oaks Galleria, where plenty of other films were shot, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Commando, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The Mall looked like it did in these movies, more or less for years after their releases. Unfortunately, it has now been remodeled into a multi-usage building that includes shops, restaurants, offices, and lifestyle locations. It looks nothing like it used to, which is a sad realization when one drives all the way across Los Angeles to go check it out and ends up stuck with a hefty parking bill and a rare few food options to make the trip worthwhile. To continue the trend of film elements that made appearances in other productions, part of the score by Chuck Cirino was reused in Deathstalker II in 1987.

Chopping Mall was almost an entirely different film, including a lot of almost cast such as Linda Blair, Dana Kimmell, basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon, playmate Allison Parks, Debra Blee, and baseball pitcher Bret Saberhagen. The film had many names attached and was released to the press while it was in production. The film was almost shot at the Beverly Center and was almost called simply Robots. All those different people and locations would have made for quite a different film. As sequels and remake talks will seemingly never go away, what location and who would you cast in a new Chopping Mall?

A couple of the previous episodes of the show can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

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