Written by: Shepard Abbott (story), Parnell Hall (screenplay)
Directed by: Douglas Cheek
Starring: John Heard, Daniel Stern and Christopher Curry
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“ Is that what you're going to tell the papers? That you're afraid of monsters? "
Toxic waste--remember when everyone was kind of obsessed with this stuff? I guess it was a natural extension of our nuclear paranoia, which got distilled down to a sludge that frequently oozed onto theater screens in the 1980s and gave birth to all manner of deformities and mutants that replaced the oversized, monstrous creatures that populated films earlier in the post-nuclear age. If you needed an excuse for a horror movie, toxic waste was the catch-all plot device to create monsters or zombies--shit, Lloyd Kaufman practically built Tromaville on it, and it was once used to actually dispose of Jason Voorhees. As such, the 80s were often very melty and gooey, and C.H.U.D. is one of the more memorable products of this cinematic bowel movement.
It’s also one of the more overcooked entries, as, for some reason, there’s about a half-dozen characters all investigating some strange occurrences in the subterranean depths of New York City. There’s a police captain (Christopher Curry) whose wife recently disappeared during an evening stroll with her dog (a prologue reveals to us that she was actually swiped into the sewers by some unseen force), a soup kitchen runner (Daniel Stern), an investigative journalist (J.C. Quinn), and a freelance photographer and his girlfriend (John Heard and Kim Griest), all of whom begin to discover that something monstrous is indeed terrorizing the homeless population that dwell in the city’s sewers.
As you can see, this is actually a pretty damn remarkable cast for a movie that’s about “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers,” which is the term coined for the disgusting creatures lurking below the streets. And it’s a good thing the movie is well-cast too since you spend a lot of time with the characters; if you’re expecting this to be 90 minutes of outrageous, gross thrills, go watch Street Trash instead. C.H.U.D. is actually more concerned with the mechanizations behind its creatures. While it’s not exactly a hard-boiled police procedural, most of the plot revolves around these various characters uncovering the conspiracy that created these things, and it’s typical government-phobia stuff that reveals the real monsters be sitting in our elected offices, where they prey upon the disenfranchised (in this case, they even go far as to dump toxic waste on them).
This is perhaps more heady than you’d expect, but it also tends to make C.H.U.D. chug a bit more than it should since everyone involved doesn’t even come together until the last act. Plus, there’s no real sense of mystery since we know what’s going on down in the sewers, and we actually see a chud in full view early on so you might be a little bummed that it takes a while to get back around to them. This unusually great cast makes it work okay, though--Curry does the “hard-wired, cop-on-the-edge” routine quite well, and Stern actually makes for a bit more of a straight-laced assistant. Stern is a guy who probably should have had a better career; he often manages to find an affable quality within his offbeat characters, and he does so here as the kindly “reverend” Shepherd, who is still kind of quirky and offbeat. Likewise, John Heard is one of those infinitely affable good guys, so it’s not like we’re watching total bores the whole time. Even the likes of Sam McMurray and John Goodman show up in bit parts as cops.
Still, most of the appeal lies in that final act, when C.H.U.D. finally gets some energy and turns into more of a horror movie, complete with some slick practical effects and gore gags. Even the score goes full-on Goblin style as the title characters finally begin to emerge and wreak a little bit of havoc (and have some havoc wreaked upon them). There’s even a little bit of intensity as the film cuts back and forth between the streets and the sewers, where Stern and Heard find themselves trapped, unable to escape both the chuds and the mandate that’s ordered all the sewers to be locked down so they can be fumigated. At its best, though, C.H.U.D. can hardly be considered riveting--it’s grungy and looks like it was doused in toxic waste, and it never fully plumbs the depths of its subversiveness to become anything more than a standard monster movie all gussied up in some slimy, 80s clothes.
As an extension of creature features, C.H.U.D. perhaps reveals that we were no longer worried about science so much as our government, as it’s boiled in post-Watergate distrust, with the most slimy characters actually being the cabal of seedy politicians. Unfortunately, it misses a few opportunities to be truly sick and smart, preferring instead to coast on these familiar beats that probably felt rotten even in ‘84. The 80s saw better films of this type, but C.H.U.D. still has quite a cult following, perhaps because its title actually became a part of our lexicon. Anchor Bay released it on DVD over a decade ago, so it’s out of print but still reasonable on the secondary market. If you go through the effort to track it down, you’ll be greeted with a presentation that still holds up alright--the transfer is anamorphic and appropriately grimy, and the mono track is good enough. Extras include a trailer, a still gallery, and a commentary with director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott, Heard, Stern, and Curry. I couldn’t worry about seeking it out since it’s currently streaming on Netflix, though, since C.H.U.D. is kind of a chud itself at times. Rent it!
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