Written by: Matthew Weber
If you don’t think the fate of humanity rests in the hands of the super-intelligent robot overlords of our future, then you’re kidding yourself. Here’s a quick look at 16 robo-centric fright flicks that demonstrate exactly what our mechanical masters have in store for us.
The Terminator (1984)
What hasn’t been said about the leader of the pack? James Cameron’s trend-setting blockbuster starring “Ah-nold” and Linda Hamilton is a much darker, stalk-and-slash film than any of its sequels. This one has it all—thrills, kills, suspense, explosive action, superb FX, a time-bending plot and a killer than just won’t quit.
Chopping Mall (1986)
This quintessential ‘80s cheese-fest from schlockmeister Jim Wynorski (Not of This Earth, The Return of Swamp Thing) features a lot of hairspray and horny teens camping out in a mall for an after-hours party. The mall’s new security “Killbots” go on the fritz and take out the intruders with laser beams and assorted gadgetry. There isn’t as much chopping as one would hope, nor do the bots look as cool as the classic poster art would suggest. Still, it’s a fun flick and was hugely popular in the video rental shops of my youth. Come for the cheeseball dialogue, stay for the exploding skull!
Class of 1999 (1990)
This gonzo B-flick was released during in my teenage years, and I watched it repeatedly. It boasts a great cast with Malcolm McDowell, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach and Bradley Gregg as Cody Culp, the brooding bad boy who just can’t leave gang life behind. A trio of military androids, assigned as teachers for a troubled high school, administers an especially cruel brand of corporal punishment to the wayward students. Lots of action, violence and cool special FX in this one.
Director Richard Stanley delivers a scorched-earth vision of a desolate post-apocalyptic world in which a nomad scavenger, Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott), comes across a ramshackle military robot. He offers its head as a gift to his artist girlfriend who rebuilds it as a sculpture. It turns out the robot is programmed not only to revive itself but also to kill with brutal efficiency. Excellent cyberpunk atmosphere, artistic direction and sharp attention to detail set this one above the pack, as do some nasty kills, cool hallucinatory imagery due to the robot’s chemical weaponry, plus a solid cast with cameos from Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and the legendary Iggy Pop as radio DJ “Angry Bob.”
Deadly Friend (1986)
Directed (with uncharacteristic glow and warmth) by Nightmare on Elm Street creator Wes Craven, this movie always felt to me like an “ABC After School Special”—with the exception of a hilariously splattery exploding-head scene. A nerdy new kid in town with a robot named “BB” befriends girl-next-door Samantha, until her abusive father throws her down a staircase and kills her. To save her life, Paul implants BB’s computer brain into Samantha’s body. Starring the “original” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kristy Swanson, Deadly Friend delivers one of the most ludicrous “surprise” endings ever committed to film.
The Vindicator (1986)
The Vindicator, aka Frankenstein ’88, was (for its time) a modernized variation on the Frankenstein theme involving science experiments gone wrong. A group of rogue robotics engineers develop a cyborg that incorporates a human brain and is programmed to respond with extreme violence to any perceived threat. One of the scientists dies in a lab accident, and his colleagues plug his brain into the cyborg. As the movie’s tagline explains, they “tampered with nature . . . and created a monster!” This is a decent B-flick with a quick pace that features Pam Grier as a commando for hire, and the robot suit was designed by FX wizard Stan Winston.
I’ve long wanted to, but have never seen Moontrap. It’s yet to be released in digital format, and I missed it during the VHS heyday. According to IMDB, “The Space Shuttle returns to earth, but some of the equipment brought back begins to behave strangely.” The movie stars the one-and-only Bruce Campbell and Walter Koenig (Chekov from Star Trek), and although the trailer looks pretty rad on YouTube, I’ve been told by trusted sources the movie basically stinks. Still, I’d like to get my hands on a copy and decide for myself, and it looks like I’ll finally be able to on November 18, when—according to Amazon—it’s scheduled for a Blu-Ray release.
Saturn 3 (1980)
On the otherwise deserted Saturn 3 space station, two research scientists (Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett) are joined by the psychotic Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel), whose mission is to assemble and program the robot Hector to work the station. When Captain Benson becomes obsessed with the sexy female scientist, he links his brain to Hector and transfers his psychotic tendencies to the robot. Hector is one of the coolest looking robots ever, and the spacey set design is stunningly detailed. Still, I can’t help but be distracted by Harvey Keitel’s “voice”, which was overdubbed by someone else in post-production to hide his New York accent.
Evolver is a teen-centric thriller starring Ethan Embry as a video game whiz who wins a contest to play a robotic “home” version of his favorite title, “Evolver.” Naturally, the robot’s gaming software is based on government-created warfare technology, so the thing goes off the rails and starts killing folks. This is a fun if predictable time-waster that’s light on the “horror” but still entertaining.
Demon Seed (1977)
Get past the outdated computer tech and you may find Demon Seed to be the most prescient movie on this list. The story, based on a Dean Koontz novel of the same name, centers on Proteus, an organic super computer with artificial intelligence. As one would suspect, Proteus gets too big for his britches and takes over the robo-automated home of his scientist creator. Yes, Proteus is definitely a “he” and his aim is to conceive a hybrid offspring with the man’s wife. This ‘70s-era fright flick forecasts the same dire warning that Stephen Hawking echoes today: Humanity faces an uncertain fate as technology learns to think for itself and adapt to its environment. With solid direction and an excellent cast (Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver), check out Demon Seed for a grim look into the future.
Death Machine (1994)
I appreciate movie titles that get right to the point. Death Machine is an oddball movie that walks a drunken line between an earnest dystopian horror yarn and a goofy spoof of the genre. Some actors play it straight while others perform with their tongue buried firmly in cheek. Similarly, both the tone of the script and the pacing are wildly inconsistent, and with a running time of two hours, this flick is way too long. That being said, you’ll also see a truly hilarious scene-stealing performance from the great Brad Dourif (Chucky from Child’s Play), slick direction, stylish editing, gripping scenes of robot violence, and a metallic killer that’s practically all teeth and claws. Dourif is Jack Dante, a mad genius who works for Chaank Armaments to develop the ultimate fighting machine. When corporate in-fighting threatens Dante’s livelihood, he unleashes his creation on his co-workers and anyone else he perceives as a threat to him or the female colleague he stalks. With character names like Scott Ridley, John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, the film gives a knowing wink to its target audience, but it should’ve been 40 minutes shorter. Watch with your finger on the fast-forward button.
In this futuristic techno-thriller, Magnum P.I. battles “The Demon” from KISS, who commands a battalion of killer mini-bots. Translation for Millenials: A mustached Tom Selleck plays a cop with vertigo who uncovers the diabolical plot of a hair-helmeted Gene Simmons in this “lost” movie from Michael Crichton (director of Westworld, writer of Jurassic Park).
I’m guessing the reason this A-list Hollywood flick from Universal Studios was unfairly maligned upon release was because it starred bankable names like Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Sutherland and William Baldwin but didn’t offer the redeeming social value expected by established movie critics. It’s a total popcorn movie with a big budget, complete with plot holes and thin characters. But I grade killer robot flicks on a curve, and this one has a lot to offer. When the crew of an American tugboat boards an abandoned Russian research vessel, an alien life form possesses the ship’s computers and electronic circuits, and targets the humans for extermination (and spare parts). Expect some impressively intricate FX work, high production values, buckets of gore and some genuine jolts.
Crash & Burn (1990)
Crash & Burn was directed by ubiquitous producer Charles Band, founder of Full Moon Pictures, which has become its own B-movie cottage industry over the years with franchises like the Puppet Master, Trancers and the Gingerdead Man series. Crash & Burn takes place in a future in which Unicom is a powerful organization overseeing most of the world after its economic collapse. They have banned computers and robots in an attempt to ensure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic stability”. One of the last bastions of free speech, a TV station, is targeted by a Unicom Synth robot. But don’t be fooled by the movie’s promos, because the towering, menacing mechanoid prominently shown in the trailer only makes a brief appearance near the end.
Colossus of New York (1958)
So what if it’s dated, cheap and sort of silly? Colossus of New York is a quality movie that undoubtedly influenced many B-flicks to come. Nobel Peace Prize winner Jeremy Spensser is killed in an accident, but his scientist father keeps his brain to transplant into a robot body—the Colossus. Of course, the huge, powerful robot develops strange powers like laser vision and mind control, then runs amok, terrorizing people. This one is definitely worth a look, and features a pounding piano score that amps up the creep factor.
Target Earth (1954)
Another from the black-and-white days of the ‘50s, this zero-budget sci-fi thriller works best with its eerie scenes of baffled survivors wandering a deserted post-invasion Chicago. Once the marauding robots are revealed, they look like costumes built by a fourth-grader from shoe-boxes.
Author bio: Matthew Weber is a writer, editor and owner of Pint Bottle Press. Visit Amazon.com to check out his latest short story collection, A Dark & Winding Road, which HorrorNovelReviews describes as “11 quite unusual short stories, all horrific in their own unique way.” www.pintbottlepress.com