The mid-1980s were a great time to be a horror fan: the films by and large became enormous, ridiculous, omnipresent gore-and-creature factories. There was a positive horror boom between 1978 and 1988-ish, with studios large and small getting into the act. Even some of the sillier flicks out there were getting some good effects, good casts, and good direction. One of the few that holds up, in that gloriously dopey ’80s way, was 1984’s C.H.U.D., a word that would come to be shorthand to monster hounds everywhere, but that audiences at the time would have to learn meant “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.”
The initial concept for C.H.U.D., as I understand it, was to be that homeless undesirables living under New York City are exposed to illegally-dumped toxic waste and turn into zombie-like creatures, given the government acronym “C.H.U.D.” That’s not what ended up happening, of course; the movie was rife with turmoil, with director Douglas Cheek and credited story writer Shepard Abbott trying to make the film listed above, but producer Andrew Bonime and second writer Parnell Hall turning it into a monster movie. Evidently, 50% of Hall’s script was re-written by two of the actors to include new characters and storylines, and the result feels a bit all over the place. But in kind of a great way.
On the face of it, the original story idea remains true: some underground monsters are picking off homeless people and hapless New Yorkers during a particularly dingy summer. The movie opens with a woman walking her dog and getting pulled into the sewer by one of these beasts. We soon discover that the woman is the wife of NYPD Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry) who teams up with a man called “The Reverend” (Daniel Stern) who runs a soup kitchen in order to find out what happened. They soon discover an offshoot of the EPA is dumping chemicals in the sewers, assuming no one will care if a few bums die as a result, but have actually created glowing-eyed monsters.
Elsewhere, in scenes that for a long while feel like they aren’t even in the same movie, a fashion photographer named George Cooper (John Heard) and his model wife Lauren (Kim Greist) live in a building near where all the people are going missing. George is keen to get out of fashion and wants to get into photographing something of substance. He was nominated for a Pulitzer for photographing New York’s homeless population and he meets up with some of his earlier subjects, who tell him about the plight, which draws him into the fold as well. Unfortunately, his building’s basement has a door to the sewer, and the C.H.U.D.s are hungry for supermodel.
At all times, C.H.U.D. feels like it’s fighting against itself and whether it should be a serious look at New York’s pollution, homeless situation, government corruption, through the guise of a horror movie, or simply a silly, rubber-suited monster movie. Ultimately, I feel like the former works better than the latter. Curry and Stern claim to have re-written more than half of the script and their scenes together feel like an expose on all of these real-world issues. If the movie had indeed been about zombified homeless people rather than monster-ified homeless people, I feel like it would have been a much better received and respected movie. But then again, it’s called C.H.U.D., so who knows?
That said, the monster suits and gore effects are actually incredibly well done and complex. The scenes of pure monster carnage work in a way you wouldn’t expect given the bulkiness of the costume, and the lengthy sequence with Greist being stalked through her apartment by a C.H.U.D. and having to fight it off is one of the movie’s best, even if it feels like it belongs in a different movie. The decision to have the beasts’ eyes shine was a pretty good one, so the director could have the lights in the scene very dim, but the monster’s own eyes shine enough light on things to give it atmosphere. Very well done.
You probably noticed so far that this movie has some surprisingly good and well known actors in it. John Heard, Daniel Stern, Kim Greist, and Christopher Curry are all people you’ve seen even if you don’t know their names, but even in smaller roles, the movie—shot in New York and with access to all of Heard and Stern’s acting up-and-coming contemporaries—brings in the likes of Sam McMurray, Peter Michael Goetz, Frankie Faizon, Jon Polito, and J.C. Quinn, all of whom are people you’d know if you saw them, several from early Coen Bros. movies. In fact, the movie’s final two small roles are a couple of beat cops who go into a diner; they’re played by Jay Thomas and John Goodman.
I want to talk specifically about their scene just for a second. This is literally the last scene in the movie: Bosch, George, Lauren, and the Reverend have defeated the evil government guy, Wilson, and have blown up the sewer where the C.H.U.D.s were. But, of course, there’s more. These two police officers walk into a diner, joking about such and such, they hit on the waitress behind the counter, and then Goodman slowly turns around to see a C.H.U.D. at the diner door, insuring the horror isn’t over.
What on Earth is this scene?! Goodman and Thomas have such presence and give their character such a strong past life that it seems like their characters should have been much more important. They are literally never in the movie before this scene, and all they do is arrive to get attacked right before the cut-to-black and credits. I’m baffled and bemused by this scene to a degree I never expected. I understand giving the movie a final jolt, but why not use any of the characters we’ve seen already, or just a couple of randos walking across the street? Why instruct these two soon-to-be-very respected actors of stage and screen a scene so rich with potential right at the end of everything?!?! I’m…I’m just so confused.
C.H.U.D. is such a weird, disjointed melange of ideas and executions that there was no way it was possibly going to succeed, but that’s oddly why I think it’s one of the best horror movies of the ’80s. There’s a sense onscreen that everybody involved is giving it 100% and thinks it’s going to be a major motion picture, even when scenes within the thing don’t gel with each other in the least. It’s so good in its not-gooditude, and it’s a damn sight better than its 1989 sequel, C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D., a straight-up horror comedy with a zombie instead of a monster. But that’s for a different day.
Images: New World Pictures