• Nick Karner

C.H.U.D. (1984)


When you’re referenced by The Simpsons, you’ve made it. When I think of New York, there’s a million other things that come to mind besides the 1984 creature feature C.H.U.D.. As a reference to Homer’s awful experience in the Big Apple, it’s hilariously appropriate. C.H.U.D.’s amazing cover image always intrigued me and once I finally watched it on a battered VHS tape, I could practically feel the scuzziness and smell the rank odor of mid-eighties New York. It was, after all, the Reagan era and as the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and were swept aside, much like the garbage that’s brushed off the street after the first kill of the movie. The film may not be a scathing indictment of the Republican Party’s disdain for the lower class, but it’s a compelling argument for regulation and holding the government accountable for its actions. Whether or not this film is an allegory or merely a cheesy 80’s horror comedy, one thing is for sure. Those C.H.U.D.s are mean and hungry. 

If you’ve already seen the film, then you know the title doesn’t even apply to the autonomous Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. The truth is, the government, represented here by slime-in-a-suit Mr. Wilson (George Martin), has been dumping toxic waste for years and labeling it Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal. Sucks to be them, since several of the resident homeless population live in the sewer and have been exposed, causing severe mutations. C.H.U.D. the word has such a fun ring to it that members of the cast and crew would stencil spray it in random places all over New York to promote the film. According to Daniel Stern in an A.V. Club Random Roles interview (conducted by Will Harris, whose podcast Obscurity Knocks is very much worth checking out), the film was a collaboration by friends who just wanted to make a movie. They included Stern and Christopher Curry (both of whom developed their characters, hence the uncredited writing bit on IMDB), John Heard, director Douglas Cheek, and writer Shep Abbott. Although Heard, Stern, and Curry had all appeared on film, they were still primarily New York-based actors, so the film is an embarrassment of riches as far as character actors go. It features several performers who would go on to very respectable careers. The movie could easily have been a sleazy exploitation flick with copious nudity and gratuitous violence, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Breeders (1986) springs to mind as an example of what could've been, though even that film has something to say about the plight of women in a dangerous city. Instead, it opts for a classier approach despite its gritty setting.


C.H.U.D. is a competently made film with above-average acting and a clever script. It sometimes wears its tight budget on its sleeve, but I’m sure the crew was tickled pink to use that crane for the opening shot. After some cool and creepy music by David A. Hughes, the camera drops down on Flora Bosch (Laure Mattos, Stern’s real-life spouse) walking her dog. A monstrous hand emerges from under a manhole cover and yanks the two down. It’s interesting to note that the original concept was for the vagrants to merely become cannibals, but the producer wanted to capitalize on the popularity of horror films at the time. The simple cannibals were changed into gloriously low-fi beasties with glowing yellow eyes, giant claws, sharp teeth, and green radioactive blood. 


George (John Heard) is an artsy photographer whose latest kick is documenting hobos and bag ladies living underground.  His girlfriend, Lauren (Kim Greist, in her first role), reminds him that he’s shooting a perfume ad for her today. He feigns ignorance and is clearly uninterested in doing “commercial” work. An unseen writer is hounding him about undelivered pictures for a news article. It’s clear George answers to no one and does his own thing. At the shoot, he bemoans the selling of Lauren’s body to promote a perfume that “smells like sheep shit.” Although I appreciate his artistic integrity, he should learn to suck it up and cash the check. Instead, he gets a call from the police station. Mrs. Monroe (Ruth Maleczech, who regularly plays homeless women) tried to steal a gun and needs to get bailed out. He abruptly abandons the shoot and hassles Officer Crespi (Sam McMurray, the wife-swapping husband from Raising Arizona and the wonderfully racist furniture salesman from Drop Dead Gorgeous). 

At the same moment, Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry) struggles with keeping the disappearance of his wife, the first victim, to himself. Chief O’Brien (Eddie Jones, a ‘that guy’ actor and the “take yer clothes off” cop from Trading Places) tells Bosch to keep a lid on it. There’s been a report of missing homeless folks at a local soup kitchen. He notices George with Mrs. Monroe and sends an undercover cop to trail him, peaking the interest of Murphy (J.C. Quinn – Maximum Overdrive, At Close Range), a reporter. On the way out, Mrs. Monroe bids adieu to the police with “Pigs! Suck a duck.”


Bosch heads over to the homeless shelter where he encounters A.J. “The Reverend” Shepherd (Stern), an ex-con who’s turned over a new leaf. Stern’s performance is the best in the film. Learning that he had a hand in the writing of his character, you can see the role was tailored to his specific sarcastic intensity. It’s a multi-layered part with a pessimistic attitude but a good heart. His acting could easily veer into the realm of scenery-chewing but he stays grounded in reality.

On any other day, I bet Bosch wouldn’t believe A.J., but with his own wife missing, he’s willing to listen. Shepherd leads Bosch down a tunnel into the sewer where they find various nuclear instruments, including a Geiger counter that gives a very a high reading for a brief moment, as if something radioactive just ran past them. 


These twin plots run concurrently and there’s some clever plotting that initially allows them to crossover until finally merging near the end, though the film does rely on remarkable coincidences. George follows Mrs. Monroe into the dank underground to see her brother Victor (Bill Raymond, also known as ‘The Greek’ from the excellent second season of The Wire). He’s the one who wants the gun. He says he was attacked by “ugly fuckers” and shows George a bloody and very big wound, which he photographs. Heard brings the film home to develop and he’s greeted with the news that Lauren is pregnant. She seems to have forgiven him mighty quick after he bailed on that photo shoot and probably damaged her career. Babies do that, I guess. Greist would go on to bigger films like Brazil and Manhunter, but she’s fine here in a thankless role.

A sweet, but lost grandfather (Peter Michael Goetz, Mr. Page, the schmuck Whoopi Goldberg works for in Jumpin’ Jack Flash) takes his granddaughter into a pay phone to call for directions. We get our first good look at the C.H.U.D.’s and they do not disappoint. There’s very little blood but the little girl is stunned into silence, only later claiming her gramps was “eaten by monsters.”

Bosch and A.J. break into George’s apartment and find the picture of Victor’s wound. They take it along with the nuclear materials to a meeting with the commissioner, O’Brien, and that prick Wilson from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This is one of the best scenes in the film and although it’s interrupted by filler-type material of George and Lauren discussing the baby and Murphy pestering them about what’s going on, it’s a solid piece of writing and acting. The suits treat the two men with obvious disdain, particularly A.J., who got dressed for the occasion by wearing a slightly-less dirty shirt.

What sets this scene apart from so many other scenes of its ilk is how smart Stern’s character is. After making their concerns about the missing “undergrounders” known and presenting the equipment they found, A.J. decides to leave. It’s all a ploy to fuck with these guys because he then produces the picture of Victor’s wound. A.J. threatens to bring the picture to the papers. This gets their attention, particularly Wilson’s. The commissioner tells A.J. that there’s “no cause to be insolent,’ to which A.J. replies, “Eat it!”

It’s very satisfying to watch Stern prove himself not to be some crackpot off the street. He compliments O’Brien for keeping his mouth shut, calls the commissioner a fool, and saves his last barb for Wilson: “You are a liar.” He grabs Wilson’s briefcase and flings it across the room. There’s a bit of dumb luck here as a file falls out of the case with C.H.U.D. printed on it. Wilson begrudgingly explains the acronym and admits there’s nuclear material in the sewer being held up by the courts. Being the big bad government guy, he calls the shots and they can’t do anything about it. A.J. leaves to call the press, but a shadow-man (John Bedford Lloyd, one of the rich assholes in Trading Places) literally eats his quarter, all while wearing a snazzy Izod Lacoste polo shirt. You know, that little alligator shirt. 

A team finds the remains of a C.H.U.D. and there’s a neat trick where you only see its reflection in the hazmat suit Bosch is wearing. Wilson decides to send a team down to continue their work and Bosch demands that he send his own team…with flame throwers. Wilson refuses, of course, but by the next scene, the NRC team runs into some cool cops armed with flame throwers, led by Sgt. Parker (the great Frankie Faison of Do The Right Thing and Silence of the Lambs (Barney!)). It’s fun to see Wilson get pissed and they watch through a video feed as the teams investigate. Wilson wants Bosch’s team gone and Bosch says, “Your man has a camera. Mine has a flame thrower,” proving once again that flame throwers rule. They’re set upon by the C.H.U.D.s and the walls start closing in on Wilson. The final solution Wilson comes up with is the Nazi-esque idea of gassing the monsters. 

George discovers his photo missing and thinks Murphy is the culprit. Murphy denies it but convinces George to lead him down into the sewer to find out what all the hubbub is about. At the same time, A.J. takes the Geiger counter to save his friends, one of whom is psycho homeless guy Val, played by Graham Beckel, who played disgraced cop Dick Stensland in the masterpiece L.A. Confidential (1997). The shadow man locks A.J. inside the tunnel right around the time Murphy is grabbed quite suddenly by the C.H.U.D.s and eaten. George runs.


The soundtrack has a brooding, ominous quality which lends itself well to the bizarre scene A.J. comes upon. Rounding a corner, he sees the C.H.U.D.s bowing and performing some sort of ritual in front of a pile of goo. He knocks over a rock and their grotesque faces spin around, glowing eyes fixated on him. He flees.

At this point I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the fine work by cinematographer Peter Stein. For me, the gold standard for underground photography has always been 1990’s Graveyard Shift. It’s the nastiest depiction of the underground I’ve ever seen. You practically need to wipe the screen. As a movie, it’s average at best, but the art direction and photography are outstanding. Little did I know it turns out the same person who shot Graveyard Shift already had experience in the dark below. Stein’s work here isn’t as distinctive as it is Graveyard Shift, but it also may be more realistic. The sewers don’t feel ridiculously gross, but that’s the point. The “undergrounders” aren’t animals and although it’s not ideal, one can believe they could get used to living down there. The movie is shot in a plain, generic 80’s style, but it serves the story. Stein also shot the second Friday the 13th film, two Ernest movies (Christmas and Jail) and Mary Lambert’s creepy Pet Sematary (1989).


With a great deal of scenes shot in the sewer, the timeline gets a bit confusing. In a scene at the docks, it’s difficult to tell if it’s morning or early evening. A body has washed up and before Bosch can be warned, he sees his wife, very much dead. Bosch has the least flashy role but his later scenes of brooding and depression fuel his desire to get revenge on Wilson.


Leaving the men for a bit, Lauren finds a mangled dog in the basement then decides to take a shower. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at this. Here it comes, you think. The gratuitous nude scene. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t quite work out the way you think. There’s a clog in the drain. She works to get it out and she gets absolutely blasted with blood. It’s awesome. 

We’re treated to a pre-fame John Goodman (only a year away from Big River) and Jay Thomas (Murphy Brown) as a couple of wiseacre cops. Thomas doesn’t say much, but you can tell Goodman is a great actor. So much personality and charisma. It feels very improvised. They look out the window and see the C.H.U.D.s peering in. We don’t see the carnage, but we certainly hear it. The response: police, fire trucks, the press, onlookers; it has a quality to it that feels real. Not an exciting, hectic response, but what it would probably look like if there were an attack in a public place. The script has some logic stretches and a plot hole or two, but it treats character and situations with respect. 


George runs into Victor, who has begun to change into a C.H.U.D., and shoots him with Murphy’s gun. Mrs. Monroe attacks George for killing her brother, but A.J. shows up to knock her out. They figure out who the other is and join forces. Stumbling on nuclear waste barrels and the real meaning of C.H.U.D., they have no idea their time is running out since the gas is going to be released soon. Nearby, they find the remains of the flame thrower and NRC team, along with the camera equipment. Fortunately, George knows cameras and after some fiddling, they get the message out to Bosch. 

The C.H.U.D.s go above ground, eat a couple of cops, then try to get Lauren. She barricades the door and tries to call the police, but she clumsily pulls the cord out of the wall when she starts walking away with the phone. I want to chastise her, but I suppose she’s freaking out. After yelling for help which, I know it’s New York and the joke has always been that nobody cares, but somebody would have heard her, at least to tell her to shut up like with Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. She has to go all Gremlins-mom and chop that C.H.U.D.’s head off. It still tries to eat her foot before its eyes cease to glow. She runs off to find George. Everybody is running off somewhere in this movie.

 

Bosch tells A.J. and George how to get out and he rushes to move the trucks that have parked over the manhole covers to stop the C.H.U.D. from escaping. He’s stopped by Wilson and convinced to speak privately with him, which was not a good call. It’s clear Wilson is not with the NRC. “A government garbage man,” Bosch calls him. With his back against the wall, Wilson pulls out a gun but Bosch decks him and runs off to move the truck. Before Bosch can get the manhole cover off, Wilson shoots him and tries to drive the truck into A.J. and George, who manage to get out before the gas overtakes them. A.J. finds the gun, shoots Wilson through the windshield, and the truck drops into the manhole, causing it to explode. Bosch is still alive, and Lauren finds George. The ending photography is pretty, with the truck flames rising into the night sky. The film ends, which makes it feel slightly unfinished. I would expect at least some shots of the C.H.U.D.s asphyxiating or maybe even burning from fire caused by the explosion. It feels as though the budget wouldn’t allow that, but it may also be due to the production’s desire to focus on the human element of the story. As a gore hound, I’d still like to have seen the bastards burning, but I get it. It’s ironic how overqualified this cast of future stars are for this kind of material. 

I find it a little mean-spirited that Criterion’s idea of an April Fool’s joke was the announcement that C.H.U.D. would receive the Criterion royal treatment and get a jam-packed double disc. C.H.U.D. isn’t high art, but it’s very entertaining. This would be editor-turned-director Douglas Cheek’s only narrative feature. For the actual editor of the film, Claire Simpson, this would be the beginning of a brilliant career that includes her Oscar-winning work on Platoon, along with Oliver Stone’s Salvador and Wall Street. She’d also lend her expertise to such films as The Constant Gardener, The Reader, and State of Grace

C.H.U.D. made a bit of money thanks to its meager budget but only one sequel was made, the straight-to-video ‘so bad it’s good’ C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud. The influence of C.H.U.D., whether due to the name alone or through multiple viewings by loyal fans has helped keep its flame alive. Being name-checked by The Simpsons is one thing. Serving as inspiration for Jordan Peele’s ambitious Us (2019) is quite another. For a little movie made by a bunch of friends, C.H.U.D. has some real staying power.