"It's not you, Ferdy. I guess I'm just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots."
Chopping Mall is set at the Park Plaza Mall, no relation to the distinguished line of inns and suites from the good folks at Carlson Hotels International. Park Plaza's decked out with three robotic Protectors, 'bots who politely request to scan bar-coded IDs distributed to mall employees and use non-lethal force to take down any unauthorized late night visitors. Between the treaded trio and the impenetrable steel doors that seal off every exit, Park Plaza is going to be the safest mall in the state! Despite those assurances, Roger Corman wouldn't give a movie a title like Chopping Mall if something didn't go terribly, gruesomely wrong. So, to help spur something terribly, gruesomely wrong, we're introduced to our unmemorably named heroes and heroines, portrayed by veterans of Slayground, Karate Kid, Friday the 13th II, Evils of the Night, Re-Animator, and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. They decide to throw a wild party at the mall, and by "wild party", I mean dance awkwardly to mid-tempo outtakes from the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack and screw around on furniture store display models, something that would clearly not be possible in any other setting. Everyone participates in the debauchery except for tightly-wound Ferdie and his blind date Alison, who's so frumpy she makes Michelle Williams look like Jenna Jameson. Thankfully, the robots adhere to their intended programming, and six boobs and twenty-four minutes later, the end credits roll without a single head having exploded. Wait, no -- actually, there's a jolt of lightning, which is never a good thing for nubile, promiscuous young characters in a quasi-horror movie, and killarity ensues! They may be trapped in a mall with three cybernetic serial killers, but at least the place is well-stocked, with AK-47s readily accessible at the sporting goods store and no shortage of gasoline, propane tanks, and assorted flammable liquids.
"Let's go send those fuckers a Rambo-gram."
Chopping Mall really isn't the type of movie that needs a review. If you can hear the title Chopping Mall for the first time and not instantly have the kneejerk reaction that your life is woefully incomplete unless you go out and watch it now, then you're probably not going to be won over. It is inarguably one of the ten best movie titles of all time, and it was that title that first drew me to Chopping Mall during its omnipresence on basic cable in the very early '90s. It was a frequent rental on VHS when I was in college, and maybe that's why this DVD is such a nostalgic kick -- because it's minted from the same elements as that nearly twenty-year-old video release.
"Y'know, maybe we'd all stand a better chance if we split up."
But that's a complaint better left to those bolded tags a couple paragraphs down. The movie...! It's like Dawn of the Dead without all that social metaphor bogging it down. Ignoring the opening and closing credits, Chopping Mall runs a lean seventy minutes or so. It still manages to be slow-moving at first -- director Jim Wynorsky takes his time leisurely establishing the premise and introducing the audience to the Killbot-fodder. Once the gears get greased up, Chopping Mall is as classic an example of '80s schlock-horror as Roger Corman's Concorde ever could've hoped to produce. The plot's predicated on its characters doing incomprehensibly dumb things, nearly every female in the cast strips down (including Re-Animator knockout Barbara Crampton), everyone who has sex gets butchered, and while there's only one really memorable kill, it completely makes the movie. Chopping Mall also has kill-cameos from Gerrit Graham (Used Cars) and Dick Miller (and if I need to italicize the title of a movie in a parenthetical note to the right of his name, you probably shouldn't bother). While it's easy to lean back and nitpick about the gaping holes in logic or the shoddy dialogue, that's all part of the experience. Chopping Mall is classic '80s camp, and if the idea of spending a little over an hour watching a set of four-foot-tall robots zap a bunch of sex-crazed twentysomethings around a shopping mall sounds appealing to you, this DVD is worth at least a rental.
"Are you kidding? The moment any one of us go out there, we're dead meat...yesterday's news!"
Video: Apparently Lion's Gate picked up some of Artisan Entertainment's bad habits when they acquired the indie house last Fall. That, or the $160 million acquisition cut into the budget for Chopping Mall. As you might've read elsewhere, this DVD recycles the transfer from the old Lightning Video VHS, even closing with an address to get more information about other Lightning releases. The source material used for this ancient transfer was in okay shape, but some wear is clearly visible, and there's a sight gag with an elevator and an ice cream cone in the opening credits where it looks like a garden spade got caught in the film gate. The image is soft, murky, and noisy, sporting bland colors that occasionally leap across the polar opposite end of the palette.
I'm not sure what the intended aspect ratio of Chopping Mall is, but the amount of dead space at the top and bottom of the 1.33:1 frame would seem to point to some sort of widescreen matting. Although Chopping Mall appears to be an open-matte presentation, it also looks like there's been some slight zooming, at least enough to make masking to 1.85:1 slightly problematic. A direct mask cuts off a small amount of some of the titles, and even a little bit of overscan would further exacerbate the problem. The framing works pretty well at 1.33:1, although one slight flaw (a few moviegoers strolling out of a late night showing in a supposedly deserted mall) is noted in the disc's commentary track.
The DVD is watchable, but there isn't really an advantage to watching this disc over an appearance on cable or even a pre-recorded VHS. It's immensely disappointing that a company like Lion's Gate that usually puts out a good product would botch a DVD like this. Yeah, I know Chopping Mall isn't exactly on the A-list, and yeah, I know it's a $10 DVD. Still, I could say the same for The Apple or Troll 2, both of which sell for the same price and still manage to sport spiffy new anamorphic widescreen presentations. C'mon, Lion's Gate, you're better than this.
Audio: The packaging claims there's a Dolby stereo surround track somewhere on here, but the only soundtrack is unambiguously monaural. The mix is thin and insubstantial, and even though I'm piping the audio through a $2,500 sound system, it might as well be creaking from the 13" TV with the fake wood paneling and half-peeled-off Garfield sticker I threw away fifteen years ago. A movie with as many explosions as Chopping Mall shouldn't sound this anemic. Oh well. At least it's closed captioned.
Supplements: Although Lion's Gate seemed determined not to go to any effort with the movie's presentation, at least they tacked on a few extras. Director Jim Wynorksi originally recorded a commentary track with Kelli Maroney and Barbara Crampton, but legal squabbles put the kibosh on New Concorde's plans for a DVD. That commentary was scrapped in favor of this newly-recorded track with Wynorski and co-writer Steve Mitchell. Like the movie itself, it starts off a bit slow, as seemingly everyone who appears in the first ten minutes is pointed out by name. I hadn't spotted Angus Scrimm in the opening sequence, though, so it's not a total wash. From there, it's a solid track, pointing out nods to Sergio Leone, the second best exploding head ever, how a junk closet for a fake scare was filled with leftover props from Battle Beyond the Stars, and forcing down spicy, ugly Cajun food at 2 AM. They also delve into the business end of production, from the budget and shooting schedule to the movie's dismal return under its initial release title and how it wound up with the name Chopping Mall. They have a good-natured sense of humor about the movie, quipping about how dated it is after twenty years, taking jabs at the dialogue and absurd plot points, and joking about all the female eye candy. Yup, I enjoyed it.
Wynorski and Mitchell return for the fifteen minute featurette "Chopping Mall: Creating the Killbots", which also includes a number of comments by Killbot creator Robert Short. As the title suggests, the 'bots get the most attention, from the initial designs to a hefty finished product with a treaded conveyor belt, rollerskate wheels, and a visual homage to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. They talk about how the robots performed on-set, how the 'bots were given their bassy, synthesized voice, and how the furniture store seige and other tricky shots and special effects were accomplished. Other aspects of the movie are touched upon as well, such as how the project came together, how Wynorski found inspiration from Gog and Capricorn One, and a tale about the creepy crawlies in the pet store. It's a solid featurette and is definitely worth taking the time to watch.
Also included on this disc are a 53-second full-frame trailer and a photo gallery with fourteen production stills, including a vintage poster under the Killbots title. Chopping Mall is packaged in a keepcase, and nope, there's no insert tucked away inside. The disc features a set of 4x3 static menus and sixteen chapter stops.
Conclusion: Chopping Mall is essential viewing for anyone with a taste for '80s schlock-horror, but its release on DVD is a really mixed bag thanks to a presentation warmed over from a nearly-twenty year old transfer. The couple of extras on this DVD are really good, but even at its bargain-bin price point, I'd probably lean towards recommending Chopping Mall as more of a rental. If Lion's Gate ever gets around to revisiting the movie and churning out a new transfer, I'll scribble down a much more enthusiastic recommendation, but until that day never comes, rent it.