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Cinema Throwback: 1986's "Chopping Mall" is a Uniquely 80s Experience
From the "so bad it's good" files...
Last Saturday at our home, my wife and I threw our annual Halloween Horror Movie Fest party. I described the event in this newsletter a few years back, but the Cliffs Notes description of the soiree is that we invite over a bunch of friends to watch two horror films on our basement projector.
The first one is always an unintentionally funny, cornball movie, and it’s typically a few decades old. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s what I wrote about past openers:
[2019’s] selection was “Ben” from 1972. It’s about a lonely boy who befriends the rodent-leader of a pack of killer rats. A few years back, we watched “Squirm,” a 1976 low-budget flick about a small Georgia town that becomes overrun with lightning-enraged, flesh-eating worms. My personal favorite is still “Shakma,” the story of a drug-driven baboon who wreaks havoc on a building full of medical students (gallantly led by 1980’s heartthrob Christopher Adkins).
For the feature film, we choose a well-made, genuinely scary flick — one that may not have grabbed a lot of mainstream attention. This year we went with 2022’s “Talk to Me,” an Australian export that I wrote about just a couple of couple ago.
But for this week’s newsletter, I’m going to write about this year’s opener: “Chopping Mall” from 1986. Its story is oddly similar to the aforementioned “Shakma,” except instead of medical students, it’s a group of shopping-mall workers and their friends. And instead of the killer being a drug-crazed monkey, it’s a trio of “high tech” mall-security robots whose programming goes haywire after the building (and its computer system) is struck by lightning.
Unlike past selections, I didn’t watch Chopping Mall prior to that night. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of the film until just a few weeks earlier, when I was doing a little internet research and saw multiple fans of the “so bad it’s good” movie-genre recommending it.
But it was the trailer that ultimately made the decision for me…
The original title of the film was “Killbots” (a far better name in my view), but after test-audiences panned the flick, some higher-ups apparently thought that re-packaging it as “Chopping Mall” would fix the problem... despite there not being any real “chopping” in the movie… well, other than the 19 minutes that were reportedly removed from the film post-production.
I decided to write about Chopping Mall this week not so much as a review of the movie, but rather a mini-critique of the era from which it came. It had been a long time since I’d seen a film that so thoroughly captured the culture of mid-1980s cinema and the time period itself.
For starters, the story took place inside a shopping mall. That in itself deserves honorable recognition, because for children of the 80s like me, a mall was an almost magical place. The one I spent the most time at was Villa Italia in Lakewood, CO. It’s where I bought all my music (including my very first vinyl record), all my clothes, and way too many Orange Julius drinks. Chopping Mall was filmed at Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles, where scenes from far more memorable 80s films were shot, including Fast Times at Ridgement High, and Commando (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Next, there was the hair and fashion. I mean, just look at this guy….
The huge, feathered mane. The thin tie. Hell, even the machismo smile and dimples feel fantastically 80s. That’s actor John Terlesky, who some of you may recognize from… well, probably not much (he went on to do more directing than acting). He played Mike Brennan, hands-down my favorite character in the movie for his classic-80s cocky-jerk qualities and way over-the-top gum-chewing. I’m sorry to report that Mike left the story far too soon.
The same could be said of the mall janitor played by Dick Miller, perhaps one of the most recognizable small-part character-actors of the 1980s, whose career-resume included Gremlins, All the Right Moves, Inner Space, and The Burbs. He was also in a memorable scene in The Terminator, which in addition to the episode below, reminds us that the Miller never had much luck with robots.
What I particularly liked about the killer robots in Chopping Mall (besides their laser-eyes with shockingly horrible aim), was that they navigated forward and backward on a continuous track, the same way a military tank maneuvers. When I was a kid in the 80s, I loved drawing pictures of futuristic tanks and other vehicles on continuous tracks, which I envisioned smashing objects flat. But it occurred to me while watching the movie that when the technology is a vertical machine standing only four or five feet tall, continuous tracks are a terrible idea. I mean, anyone threatened by these robots could have just laid on the floor some heavy, relatively short objects between them and the mechanical menaces, and made a clean getaway. Bummer that none of the characters ever figured that out.
What they did wield was an extraordinary amount of fire-power — big guns and big ammo, courtesy of a sporting goods store in the mall. And every character conveniently knew exactly how to load and fire each weapon.
Who would have guessed that all that stood between dweeby mall-workers transforming into John Rambo were a couple of plate-glass doors? The answer to that question, of course, is “80’s movie fans. That’s who.”
The special effects and gore were vintage 80s, as was the highly-synthesized music-soundtrack. And just in case you were worried that one particular hallmark of the genre and era managed to escape this film, let me assure you that there were indeed boobs. Lots of boobs. Obligatory topless scenes were well represented in Chopping Mall.
Speaking of boobs, let’s wrap up this week by going back to Mike!
Have you ever seen Chopping Mall? Which movie do you think best represents the 1980s? Let me know in an email or in the comment section below.
Obligatory Dog Shot
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In Sedona last week, I came across this baby at a used record store. 1978’s “Tokyo Tapes” is a 2-LP live recording featuring several of the Scorpions early hits. I’ve only listened to a little of it so far, but it sounds fantastic. The German metal band is great live, and apparently always has been… just like guitarist Rudolf Schenker (pictured on the cover) has always been surprisingly flexible.
The album was recorded at Nakano Sun Plaza in Japan.
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