A bona fide example of ’80s trash horror, Jim Wynorski’s tale of killer robots and horny teens is its own kind of therapy.
It was a clear, crisp autumn night in suburban New Jersey. I was pacing around a moonlit backyard, desperately trying to convince myself that I was not dying.
Needless to say, this was not how I had planned on spending my evening. The plan, as it often was when visiting home, was to hang out in my buddy Sam’s basement and watch the most fun-looking bad movie we could find. To call it a hallowed tradition would be putting it lightly. We consider ourselves bad movie connoisseurs. The Love Guru? Watched it. Jack and Jill? Watched it twice. Every direct-to-streaming Nicolas Cage film on Netflix? Don’t threaten us with a good time, bro.
We were perusing the selections on Amazon Prime seeing if anything got our schlock-o-meters buzzing when violent surges of adrenaline began coursing through my body. It felt primitive like I was a caveman being chased by a bear. I tried first to ignore it and then to shake it off, but the waves of sheer terror only got more and more severe. I felt like my life was in imminent danger. No, I knew my life was in imminent danger. I was sure of it. I was on the very brink of death.
Lucky for me, Sam was no stranger to anxiety issues, and he knew just what to do. Realizing that I was having a panic attack, he led me outside to his backyard and made me walk around in circles. He reminded me to breathe deep. He reassured me over and over again that I wasn’t dying. Even when I shoved my wrist in his face multiple times and demanded that he check my pulse, each time he gently insisted that my heart was beating normally. He kept me talking to distract me. He was a true friend that night.
After roughly two hours of this, I was feeling more or less back to normal, but I didn’t want to risk driving home should the panic return. So back down to the basement we ventured, and before long, a certain film caught our eyes. A robotic hand, jagged and wild, holding a shopping bag full of severed body parts? Why not! It didn’t take long before the feeling of being chased by a bear was replaced by that of being chased by a killer robot with laser eyes. But instead of being horrified, I was soothed. I was calm. I was home. I was wondering where Chopping Mall had been all my life.
Chopping Mall concerns a gaggle of young mall employees who sneak into the furniture store after hours, because where else in a mall would you go to get drunk, dance to some generic new wave tunes, and have sex on display beds within full view of your friends? Unfortunately for them, thanks to a rogue lightning strike, the mall’s new state of the art robot security guards begin malfunctioning. Soon they’re on the hunt for blood!
Chopping Mall was directed by Jim Wynorski and produced by Julie and Roger Corman. Wynorski and Steve Mitchell wrote the film in a month; it was shot over 20 days at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles. It features several faces that will be familiar to any ‘80s horror hound, most notably Kelli Maroney (Night of the Comet) and Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator), not to mention cameos from such beloved B-movie luminaries as Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov (reprising the murderous yuppies they played in Eating Raoul), and the legendary Dick Miller.
Chopping Mall was released on March 21, 1986. It was initially called Killbots, a title that makes sense, and was a box office bomb. It made more money when it was re-released a few months later as Chopping Mall, a title that doesn’t make as much sense. But sometimes life doesn’t need to make sense. It just needs to feel right.
Chopping Mall felt right to me that night. I watched with childlike glee as these dinky robots with tank-tread wheels and nipple clamp claws dispatched these 30-year-old teenagers one by one, always uttering their wonderfully innocuous catchphrase, “Thank you, have a nice day!” I cheered when a laser blast exploded the head of model-turned-actress Suzee Slater, hands down one of the best head explosions in horror history. (It’s not as good as Scanners or The Prowler, but it’s at least as good as Maniac.)
I frenetically played air synths along to Chuck Cirino’s heavily arpeggiated cheesetastic score. But mostly, I basked in the comfort that people like me, who struggle with mental health, take from horror movies: Things may get bad, but they’ll never get this bad.
I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression for almost as long as I can remember. As a young child, I was plagued with nightmares about being separated from my family or getting lost in an unfamiliar place. I would toss and turn at night, worrying about my parents dying. I would look up at the tall ceilings of my elementary school’s gymnasium, and feel a queasy feeling in my stomach, telling me that that ceiling was going to tumble down and crush everyone else and myself like bugs.
Depression reared its ugly head around adolescence. I was sad all the time and lost interest in most extracurricular activities, but I couldn’t explain why. My friends, being fellow teenage boys, mostly mocked me. My parents, whom I love dearly and did an excellent job raising me, didn’t really know how to handle it. Since I was always a precocious, “old for his age” kind of kid, I think they just thought it was a phase I’d grow out of.
The panic attacks started in high school. The first one was the capper on an epically awful week in which a potential love interest (whom I met on Xanga because it was 2005) got back together with her ex-boyfriend. Then some unknown goon stole my shockproof Discman, not to mention the copy of At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, from my locker during gym class. Something in me snapped. My Psychology 101 teacher made a pretty, popular girl escort me to the nurse’s office, and she looked, shall we say, freaked the fuck out by what was happening to me.
It was around this time that I started getting into horror movies: Evil Dead II, Friday the 13th, The Shining, Videodrome. After a lifetime of being the perpetually nervous boy who had to leave the room when Donovan drinks from the wrong grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, my new obsession with fright flicks felt somewhat inexplicable. In hindsight, I may have been treating my own mental illness without even realizing it.
An April 2020 article in Psychology Today investigates a recent study on the relationship between people with anxiety and horror fandom. As one subject of the study opines, “My anxiety stems from situations I cannot control. Horror films involve situations beyond my control; my anxiety spikes initially, then declines once I realize the situation is out of my hands, because this is the moment when my brain understands it is not me in the movie.”
Horror movies allow us to experience life’s worst-case scenarios vicariously. For people like me who are constantly expecting those worst-case scenarios to be lurking around every dark corner, watching something like Chopping Mall becomes something of a training exercise disguised as retro escapism. I cannot control the specter of death any more than our pastel polo-clad deadmeats could. One day, a day like any other day, you are going to die. It may be from a heart attack, it may be from a car crash, or it may be from a murderous android setting you on fire. Accepting that is the first step towards getting better.
For people like me who are constantly expecting those worst-case scenarios to be lurking around every dark corner, watching something like Chopping Mall becomes something of a training exercise disguised as retro escapism.
It would be another year after Chopping Mall pulled me back from the abyss before I finally took the plunge and sought treatment for my mental health issues. Starting therapy was the best decision I have ever made. I’m far from cured of my anxiety and depression, but I’m able to regulate them healthily. These days, if there are two causes that I’m known to proselytize on behalf of, it’s talking to a therapist and watching Chopping Mall.
Since that clear, crisp autumn night, I’ve realized how rare it is to find exactly what you’re looking for exactly when you need it. Most of the time, we just cling on to what we can to cope with life, especially in this cursed year of 2020. But for one night, the horror movie gods smiled down on me and delivered nothing short of lysergic neon absolution.
Most of the world might call Chopping Mall trash. They might call it lowbrow. They might call it needlessly violent and lurid. As for me, I call it a godsend—with an awesome head explosion.