Back Add a Comment Share:
Facebook Button
In 1981, former HBO executive Austin Owen Furst, Jr. was hired to dismantle Time-Life Films and took the opportunity to snag the home video rights for a few movies himself. With movies in hand, he formed a label, which he named Vestron at the behest of his daughter, who suggested combining the word Vestra, a Greek Goddess, and tron, the Greek word for ‘instrument.’ Vestron released and sometimes even produced popular A-movies (notably Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing, 1987), but, among a growing cluster of movie enthusiasts, they were best known for their B-horror output. Fans became familiar with the company’s unmistakable purple and white giant ‘v’ logo at the beginning of some of their favourite movies (or, in some cases, the logo of their sub-label, Lightning Video). Vestron burned brightly for ten years, but was bought out by Live Entertainment in 1991, and, later, Artisan Entertainment. When Artisan merged with Lions Gate Entertainment in 2003, they acquired one of the largest home video libraries in the world, including a lot of former Vestron releases. But most of these movies (not Dirty Dancing, obviously) sat in Lionsgate’s vault as Blu-ray and other HD formats overtook standard definition DVD.

...until now. Lionsgate has announced the Vestron Video Collector’s Series, beginning with the Blu-ray debuts of Jim Wynorski’s

Chopping Mall

and Jackie Kong’s

Blood Diner

.

Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

Chopping Mall

Vestron Video Collector's Series #1 (1986)
High-tech robots equipped with state-of-the-art security devices have been recruited as the new mechanical night watchmen for the Park Plaza Mall. When a jolting bolt of lightning short circuits the main computer control, the robots turn into killbots...on the loose after unsuspecting shoppers! Four couples are trying to make it after-hours in a mattress store. They make it all right...in the morgue! (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall is a classic example of a high concept B-movie. It borrows ideas from other B-movies and couples them in new ways to draw exploitation audiences. It is the first, last, best, and worst movie about security robots going haywire and murdering people in a locked shopping mall. Oddly, its perfect concept was deadened by the fact that it was advertised as a different high concept B-movie. The schlocky title, Chopping Mall, and original poster/video box art (which feature a robotic hand holding a shopping bag full of body parts) promises a mall-themed slasher movie, rather than a killer robot movie (apparently, Julie Corman hired Wynorski specifically to make a movie about a killer in a mall). For the record, the working title was R.O.B.O.T.S. and the original release title was the even more appropriate Killbots, but it was changed to Chopping Mall following test screenings. I suppose this says something about the public’s thirst for a mall-themed slasher. Curiously, such a movie still doesn’t exist. The closest thing is Richard Friedman’s weird/boring Phantom of the Opera riff, Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge. Sadly, the production released the movie a year too early to cash-in on the success of Robocop. I assume the title would’ve been changed to Robomallcops, had the timing lined up.

As a mall-themed slasher, Chopping Mall is a failure, but, as a comedic pseudo-satire of ‘80s mall culture, it stands up better than I expected. It sags in the middle, because scares and robot action aren’t exactly Wynorski’s forte, but the gags, in-jokes, and colourful sci-fi trappings (it’s full of little classic cult movie Easter eggs) are enough to drag it through tepid violence and character clichés. The A-plus B-movie cast – including Barbara Crampton (hot off Stuart Gordon’s ( Re-Animator, 1985), Kelli Maroney (hot off Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet, 1984), the incomparable Dick Miller, and Mary Woronov & Paul Bartel semi-secretly reprising their roles as Mary & Paul Bland from Bartel’s Eating Raoul (1982) – is up to the task of poking fun at teen sex comedy, horror, and shoot ‘em up action traditions. Following Chopping Mall, which is very likely his best movie, for whatever that’s worth, Wynorski worked on loads of sequels to other ongoing B-franchises ( Deathstalker II, 1987; The Return of Swamp Thing, 1989; Sorority House Massacre II, 1990; 976-Evil II, 1991) and, more recently, loads of softcore spoofs, including four Bare Wench Project movies, two The Witches of Breastwick movies, four Busty Cops movies, Cleavagefield (2009), and The Hills Have Thighs (2010). He also has the dubious honor of working on two separate Gremlins rip-off franchises – Munchie (parts one and two) and Ghoulies (part four).

After languishing on cable TV and used VHS copies for decades, Chopping Mall was finally released on DVD by Lionsgate in 2004. Unfortunately, it featured a cropped, non-anamorphic, 1.33:1, video-based transfer that was recycled again on Cornerstone Media’s PAL R2 release and as part of an eight movie DVD pack, also from Lionsgate. This Collector’s Series Blu-ray debut features a 1.78:1 (slightly reframed from the 1.85:1 theatrical release), 1080p transfer that is supposedly ‘newly remastered,’ per the advertising materials. The results are mixed. It is, of course, a massive upgrade over the cropped and dingy DVD releases. Basic elemental separation is tight, colours are vivid, and black levels are impressive. Unfortunately, someone has gone overboard on the noise-reduction front. The DNR smooths out grain, causes posterization in close-ups, and softens wide shots into fuzzy blobs (see the first screen cap below). In addition, dark edges glow with over-sharpening haloes and there is a sheen of CRT noise (there’s one shot just past the 1:08:10 mark that is much grittier than the rest of the film). The loss of detail isn’t a deal-breaker, considering that the original scans probably weren’t great to begin with (there are streaky brown lines peppered through a few shots) and, again, there was no widescreen edition available in the past. Those muddy wide shots are a pretty big bummer, though.

Chopping Mall is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. It is a 2.0 mono track, which the box art refers to as the ‘original audio,’ though imdb.com claims that it was a stereo release. Considering the fact that all DVD versions were also mono, I’m willing to take Lionsgate’s word for it (perhaps there were stereo prints circulated at some point, but the source negatives were mono). The sound is sharp and pretty neat. Vocal performances, action cues (explosions, gunshots, et cetera), and robotic sound effects are mixed cleanly and loudly with little in the way of crowding problems or compression. Chuck Cirino’s electronic music is derivative, but infectious. The major themes are awesome enough to make me wish I had a soundtrack CD/MP3. This Blu-ray’s isolated score option is the closest I’ll get, I guess.

Extras include:
  • Commentary tracks:
    • Director/co-writer Jim Wynorski, actress Kelli Maroney, and co-writer/2nd unit director Steve Mitchell – The first commentary (in track order) was recorded exclusively for this release. Wynorski and Mitchell talk a whole bunch, bouncing off of each other and cracking jokes between anecdotes. Maroney is more of a bemused bystander, but pops up with plenty of pearls of wisdom throughout the track.
    • Writers/fans Nathaniel Thompson of Mondo Digital (http://www.mondo-digital.com) and Ryan Turek of Shock Till You Drop (http://www.comingsoon.net/horror) – The second new track is part expert track – which runs down the history of the film and filmmakers – and part fan celebration. Thompson and Turek’s efforts outshine many ‘fan tracks’ by moving the commentary along without getting too precious about their favourite moments, supplying information not already available, and contextualizing the mid-to-late ‘80s era from a horror fan point-of-view.
    • Director/co-writer Jim Wynorski and co-writer/2nd unit director Steve Mitchell – This is the original commentary that had been recorded for Lionsgate’s first DVD release. It’s a bit more focused than the newer director/writer track, but there’s also quite a bit of overlap.
  • Back to the Mall (26:29, HD) – A fun and refreshingly honest retrospective featurette with Wynorski, Mitchell, and cast members Maroney, Crampton, John Terlesky, Nick Segal, and Russell Todd. Subject matter includes writing, casting, stunts, the title change, and the joys of cult fandom.
  • Chopping Chopping Mall (8:19, HD) – Editor Leslie Rosenthal discusses her process and the tricks she imposed to create action and space. She, Mitchell, and Wynorski also briefly discuss the BD restoration.
  • Talking about the Killbots (12:11, HD) – Robot creator/SFX guy Robert Short talks about design and construction of the film’s mechanical murderers.
  • Scoring Chopping Mall (11:04, HD) – Composer Chuck Cirino and Wynorski recall the movie’s ‘robotic’ synthesizer musical themes, including a cue called ‘The Ecstasy of the Robots,’ which was designed after Sergio Leone’s ‘The Ecstasy of the Gold’ from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
  • The Robot Speaks: Ten Questions with the Killbot (2:12, HD) – Mitchell ‘interviews’ one of the robots (audio over an image of the bot).
  • The Lost Scene (3:01, HD) – The cast and crew discuss an unfilmed scene written for Mary Woronov & Paul Bartel. Note that there is reportedly a different deleted scene available with the television edit of the movie that is not included here.
  • Army of One (6:01, HD) – An interview with Chopping Mall’s self-proclaimed biggest fan, Carl Sampieri.
  • Chopping Mall: Creating the Killbots (15:41, SD) – A vintage interview with Short and Wyrnorski.
  • Trailer


 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner


Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

Blood Diner

Vestron Video Collector's Series #2 (1987)
The Namtut brothers run the most popular restaurant in town. But their delicious recipes contain nothing less than the victims of their after-hours sorcery. Possessed by the spirit of their demonic uncle Anwar, the brothers are attempting to resurrect the ancient and deadly Sheetar, goddess of blood and lust. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

Blood Diner

is the third film by Jackie Kong, who previously broke the exploitation movie glass ceiling with the gory monster movie, The Being (1983), and the grimy crime comedy Night Patrol (1984). It is better known as the unofficial sequel/remake/ode to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ (R.I.P.) groundbreaking 1963 gore opus, Blood Feast. The general idea is that Blood Feast’s killer (named Anwar Namtut here, instead of Fuad Ramses) has passed down his Egyptian cult traditions to his nephews. Twenty years after his death, they resurrect his brain in hopes of completing his murderous ritual to the fictional goddess Sheetar (the goddess is named Ishtar in Blood Feast). Whereas Lewis’ film was played for straight, released as a serious horror film, then reevaluated as a camp classic, Blood Diner immediately acknowledges its silly side and goes all-in on the over-the-top comedy. As an homage to those films, it perfectly recreates the specific tones and vibes of the Lewis brand of mid-’60s gross-out comedy within a greasy, pastel-shaded ‘80s context. It’s garish, unattractive, and its outrageous gore is kind of cute. It was written by actor, composer, bandleader, and all around horror personality Dukey Flyswatter (real name Michael Sonye and long-time Fred Olen Ray collaborator) who has a good ear for arthritic, Lewis-esque dialogue and a mind for wholesomely offensive set-pieces.

Personally, I find most of the jokes that don’t relate to Blood Feast nostalgia pretty obnoxious, but the steady stream of unexpected gags ensure that a few laughs slip through the cracks, such as nude victim successfully subdues her attacker in a cave with kung fu, only to be killed by a falling stalactite. Kong’s basic skills (which are sometimes purposefully hidden behind a sheen of camp filmmaking) set Blood Diner above the likes of most of its gleefully immoral, Troma-branded counterparts (Flyswatter acted in Troma’s utterly terrible Surf Nazis Must Die the same year), as does Flyswatter’s preference for dry comedy over hysteria (some lines are delivered so stiffly that the failed execution becomes funnier than the joke itself). The gore effects are more plentiful, especially during the gonzo finale). Still, I prefer the unfiltered hilarity of genuine H.G. Lewis movies (especially Two Thousand Maniacs, 1964) or the outrageous trash of another Lewis-devotee – John Waters. Note that Lewis did make an official sequel to Blood Feast in 2002, entitled Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat.

Blood Diner was not as big of a home video hit as Chopping Mall and I’ve definitely never seen it on television. This rarity extended into the digital era and it was (as far as I can tell) only officially released on North American DVD as part of a six movie horror collection from Lionsgate. It is apparently a popular movie in Germany, where it has been released twice on DVD – first on non-anamorphic disc from CMV Laservision, then on anamorphic disc from Dragon Entertainment – and once on Blu-ray from Edel (I don’t have access to this transfer). This 1080p Blu-ray debut is also framed at 1.78:1 and looks pretty good, considering the film’s low-budget, low-skill origins. There are minor signs of DNR, but the bigger difficulty this time is scanner noise, which mushes up some detail in wide shots and causes minor quantisation artefacts. Details are neater than the Chopping Mall disc and there’s plenty of accurate-looking grain that hasn’t been smudged-out. Generally, it is the darkness of the photography, intensity of the smoke/haze effects that Kong and cinematographer Jurg Walther employ, and general condition of the film that keep this from being an A+ transfer. The palette is a bit muddy, but that’s the way the film has always looked. Frankly, it’s about 100 times more vivid than I’ve ever seen and better than expected.

Blood diner is presented in its original mono sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. A lot of this sound seems to have been added in post and is awkwardly mixed from inconsistent sources, in part to mimic the terrible audio of H.G. Lewis’ splatter epics (I assume), but probably also because it was shot so cheaply. There are loads of inconsistencies in tone, clarity, and volume levels (between cuts the dialogue will shift from tinny to dynamic and back again), but that’s part of the film’s ‘charm.’ The soundtrack was composed by one-time Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston. It’s a fine ‘80s horror synth score and it is accompanied by classical cues and rockabilly/doo-wop songs that set it apart from its competitors. The music tends to be more evenly mixed then the rest of the track, though to a fault, as it overwhelms some of the dialogue.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with director Jackie Kong – Kong comes to the commentary well-prepared and takes the process very seriously. The subject matter spans the entire making-of the film, from technical aspects to production/costume design, settings/locations, and oodles of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. This is a full-bodied, info-packed track that should please fans and it rarely overlaps with the other extras.
  • Killer Cuisine: The Making Of Blood Diner five-part documentary (64:31, HD) –
    • Open for Business – Flyswatter, producer Jimmy Marlson, and creative consultant Bill Osco discuss the writing and inspirations behind the screenplay, approaching Kong to direct, distribution, casting, the doo-wop soundtrack, and the film’s enduring cult legacy.
    • Queen Kong – Women in Horror frontrunner and documentary producer Stacy Pippi Hammon interviews Jackie Kong, who talks about her female-centric production crew, avoiding seeing Blood Feast so as to not be influenced (...I’m not sure I believe her), the tight and cheap production, casting without SAG support, the changes she made to Flyswatter’s script, special effects, MPAA objections, and the continuing lack of women directing movies.
    • The Cook, The Uncle, and The Detective – Actors Carl Crew (George Tutman), Drew Godderis (Uncle Anwar), and Roger Dauer (Mark Shepard) talk about their lives before, during, and after Blood Diner.
    • Scoring for Sheetar! – Composer Don Preston discusses his score, being introduced to Kong via Robert Downey Sr., and the synthesizers he used to record the music.
    • You Are What They Eat – Cinematographer Jürg V. Walther praises Kong, talks about his set-ups, and laments the impossible schedule and studio interference.
  • Interview with project consultant Eric Caidin (8:01, SD) – In this 2009 archive interview, the late consultant shares a load of behind-the-scenes stories.
  • Two trailers, TV spots, and radio spots
  • Still gallery


 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

 Chopping Mall/Blood Diner

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


Links: