Sometime in recent history, Black Friday morphed from a day of markdowns that kicked off the Christmas-shopping season to a contact sport. But horror movies have long since viewed the mall as a breeding ground for terror. What’s scarier than being trampled by frenzied bargain hunters? Read on.
George A. Romero’s 1978 classic, the sequel to his groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, is top on this list for obvious reasons. Set at a mall outside Pittsburgh, Dawn of the Dead is genius on many levels. A suburban shopping center provides an outstandingly practical setting for a zombie movie—the survivors that hide there have easy access to ample food, clothing, weapons, and whatever other supplies they might need to sit tight for an extended period of time. Though they construct barriers to keep the undead out of their stronghold, it’s not enough to keep desperate humans at bay, specifically a biker gang whose reckless invasion renders the mall as unsafe as the rest of the ghoul-infested world. (One among their number is played by Tom Savini, who also did the film’s special effects make-up—including this memorable exploding head—and went on to become a legend in the field.) And, of course, there’s the overt social commentary that human shoppers tend to resemble zombies at times, lurching forth on a constant quest for fulfillment that never comes. Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake was written by James Gunn, and is also quite a fun ride—though Romero’s version remains the definitive one.
Another mall, another spectacular exploding head—but this time, there’s a whole different kind of enemy. In Jim Wynorski’s cult slasher Chopping Mall, it’s a trio of state-of-the-art (well, circa 1986) security robots that turn totally evil after a freak lightning strike ignites their urge to laser-blast every human they see. Fortunately, this mishap happens at night; unfortunately, it’s the same night a group of horny young mall employees have decided to hold an after-hours rager in the furniture store. Much like the fugitives in Dawn of the Dead, the kids make great use of the resources available to them, booby-trapping the elevators and gathering guns, gasoline, and paint and other chemicals, arming themselves as best they can against the killer robots. (Thank goodness the mall is home to that well-known in-joke emporium, “Peckinpah’s Sporting Goods.”) The fact that robot security guards are now an actual thing at malls—and sometimes make headlines for dangerous malfunctions—lends an extra sheen of authenticity to what’s essentially a cheeseball splatter movie. That said, Chopping Mall is fast-paced, clever, and excellently gory, which makes it very excellent cheese.
Six years before the Dawn of the Dead remake, another movie that paid loving homage to the zombie-consumer continuum lurched through the proverbial food court: Hong Kong import Bio-Zombie. Wilson Yip’s film is really more comedy than horror movie, and some of its tasteless jokes haven’t aged well. That said, this is a movie that knows how silly it is, with a pair of bratty protagonists named Woody Invincible and Crazy Bee. The dudes—who work at the mall selling bootleg DVDs—are having a pretty typical day, pestering security guards and girls and being rude to customers, when a bioweapon that turns people into zombies enters the picture. (Don’t worry about how or why, because the movie sure doesn’t.) It takes awhile for the splat-sticky rampage to begin, and the special effects look to have been created from materials found at the dollar store. However, there’s a certain eerie claustrophobia that arises, thanks to the action taking place in a mall that looks far different than what Americans are used to—the stores are tiny, and the maze-like hallways between them are narrow, with low ceilings, making the encounters with the undead inevitable and nearly impossible to avoid. Even still, you know how in every zombie movie there’s an annoying character you wish would just die already? That’s everyone in Bio-Zombie, and it does get tiresome awfully quickly.
The 2007 movie version of Stephen King’s novella is the superior adaptation, but the TV show shifted the “we’re trapped here” part of the story from a supermarket to a big ol’ shopping center. This allowed the TV show to explore how a group of people confined together would first form a supportive community, only to quickly fracture and begin fighting as levels of stress, terror, paranoia, and cabin fever began to rise. It also winked at Dawn of the Dead, as the denizens of the mall helped themselves to food, weapons, and other supplies conveniently contained under their giant roof. While The Mist TV show ended up being pretty disappointing (and was cancelled after one season as a result), the mall scenes were actually among its most satisfying. Any time a tendril of smoky terror found its way in through an open door, you could be assured that some gruesome horror would follow. The set-up may have afforded a fairly obvious metaphor about humanity’s capacity to be just as monstrous as anything supernatural—especially when the group decides that banishing rule breakers into the outdoors is fair punishment, and one of the group’s leaders decides murder is an OK response to anyone who challenges his authority—but the gloriously gross and mind-warping things that happened to people captured by the Mist were easily the most creative and inspired parts of the show. Being caught in a crazed mob of door-busting Black Friday shoppers would almost be preferable to that sinister stuff.
You’ve heard of Phantom of the Opera. You know all the Phantom of the Paradise songs by heart. But what about the most dreaded Phantom of them all... the lovesick teen who haunts the mall, lurking in the air ducts, protecting his former girlfriend, hiding his hideously scarred face, and utilizing some marvelously creative murder tactics—giant fans, escalators, poisonous snakes—to take down anyone who gets in his way? (The “revenge” part of the title comes because poor Eric’s house was deliberately burned down to make way for the mall, which is actually decent motivation if you think about it.) This movie is pretty silly, though it is blessedly non-musical, and it makes use of one of cinema’s most-filmed shopping centers of the 1980s, if not all time: the Sherman Oaks Galleria, also seen in Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
This isn’t technically a horror movie. But it is set almost entirely within a mall... and it just might give you nightmares. TAQUITO!