Even if you’ve never seen the 1984 movie C.H.U.D, you’ve probably heard about it; it’s become something of a punchline in the world of horror. In 2011, the classic movie auteurs at The Criterion Collection, distributor of many prestigious titles and reissues, announced that they would be re-releasing C.H.U.D., but it turned out to be an April Fool’s Day prank (the joke being, no film is less worthy of the Criterion treatment). Between tormenting Homer on The Simpsons and popping up on Robot Chicken, C.H.U.D. has become a laughing stock.
But C.H.U.D., directed by Douglas Cheek (who would never direct another feature film), is so much more than your typical 80’s era b-movie or an example of a film that’s so-bad-it’s-good; C.H.U.D. is actually great. In fact, the more attention you give the film, the more it reveals itself to be complex, socially conscious, well-acted, compelling, and genuinely scary.
Official Synopsis: Photographer George Cooper (John Heard) is documenting the lives of subterranean homeless people, a population that has mysteriously dwindled. After receiving information from a reporter, George becomes aware of a conspiracy theory about cannibalistic monsters lurking in the sewers. He teams up with the reporter, a policeman (Christopher Curry) and a priest (Daniel Stern) to fight two battles: one against the cannibals and the other against a corrupt government official.
Starring John Heard (Home Alone) and Christopher Curry (Starship Troopers) alongside an early appearance from John Goodman, C.H.U.D. has justifiably built up a huge cult following in the years since its release in 1984, with one of the most iconic creature designs of the period.
Despite what you might have heard, C.H.U.D. is not a horror comedy as so many seem to think; Google describes the film as horror, sci-fi, and drama. Is it funny? Sure it has its moments, but a few jokes and/or a bit of comic relief doesn’t make it a comedy. Confusion could stem from the film’s unfortunate sequel, Bud the C.H.U.D., released in 1989 and directed by David Irving. That film is intentionally slapstick and, frankly, terrible. Don’t get the 2 mixed up, because the vastly different approaches to the franchise’s themes create vastly different tones. Bud the C.H.U.D. is so inferior to its predecessor, this is the last I’ll even mention it.
C.H.U.D. as Social Commentary
C.H.U.D. was produced during the first term of US President Ronal Regan, a time of great turmoil in America. In addition to reigniting the Cold War, the administration enacted a policy known as Deinstitutionalization to deal with the country’s mentally ill. While it was propped on the tent poles of smaller communities, out-patient treatment programs, and advancements in therapeutic medications, most Federal institutions were merely shuttered, with residents bussed off and abandoned on Skid Rows across the America. This resulted in an explosion of homelessness—something many Americans experienced for the first time.
C.H.U.D. holds a harsh mirror to the concept of Deinstitutionalization while reflecting both overt and subconscious attitudes towards the homeless in the 1980s. While some individuals and organizations rose to aid the homeless, many regarded them with disdain; lazy, unmotivated and parasitic; somehow less than human. Thus, the titular C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) are metaphors for the inherent evil of Deinstitutionalization and a reflection of how many Americans viewed the homeless themselves.
Related Article: Here’s Why “Frailty” is One of the Most Underrated Horror Films of the 21st Century
C.H.U.D. as Environmental Horror
The second acronym for C.H.U.D. revealed in the film is “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal“, and it speaks to the film’s subplot involving the illegal storage of toxic waste under the city of Manhattan. The environmental movement in American solidified its stance during the Regan Administration in response to issues ranging from pollution, impending animal extinctions, and the dangerous transportations of nuclear byproducts to landfills across the nation. Many feared an environmental catastrophe was imminent.
C.H.U.D. becomes so much more than a tale of underground monsters dragging unsuspecting victims into the sewers through manholes. The film becomes a metaphor for the consequences of environmental abuse, where the mutation of homeless communities symbolizes a potential devolution of the entire species. While the C.H.U.D. are initially presented as villains in the film, they’re actually victims of a much larger, institutional evil.
C.H.U.D. as a Procedural Cop Thriller & More
C.H.U.D. is vastly more intelligent than anyone gives it credit for. In addition to the horror and sci-fi elements already discussed, the film is an intriguing procedural cop thriller in the vein of Seven and/or Kiss the Girl. It’s also a conspiracy drama like The Pelican Brief or Clear and Present Danger. C.H.U.D. is an unlikely buddy flick where hard-boiled cop Bosch (Christopher Curry) sees his adversarial relationship with activist A.J. “The Reverend” Shepherd (Daniel Stern) develop into one based on mutual respect.
One of Daniel Stern’s Best
Did you even know Daniel Stern was in the film C.H.U.D.? It’s true, and the performance is one of his all-time best. Some reports also claim Stern was integral in developing the part of “The Reverend”, and even fought to include some of the film’s most important political and social subtexts. If you’ve appreciated the man for comic turns in films like Home Alone, City Slickers, and Very Bad Things, see him in a role like none other, displaying heroic and dramatic abilities that may have been vastly underutilized throughout the actor’s career.
The Legacy of C.H.U.D.
Look, I’m not saying C.H.U.D. is a perfect film; it has pacing issues, a lack of continuity, and too many protagonists, but it’s at least a thousand times better than you’ve probably heard. Best of all, C.H.U.D. is vastly entertaining with the gloomy aesthetic and feel of John Carpenter’s early films. In the decades since its release, C.H.U.D. has popped up with the frequency of more popular cinematic icons. To date, C.H.U.D. has been referenced in The Simpsons & Robot Chicken (as previously mentioned), The Flash, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Castle, and Archer.
In 2014, rumors swirled that Rob Zombie was keen to produce a C.H.U.D. remake, but those murmurs led to nothing. It’s a shame because I bet in Zombie’s capable hands, a rebooted C.H.U.D. could be epic and brutal! I know there’s knee-jerk aversion to horror movie remakes, but in this case, I’m a total proponent.
If you have yet to experience C.H.U.D. for yourself, consider the recent re-release from Arrow Video (released in late 2016) a must-watch and a must-have. Special Features include:
Brand new restoration from original film elements
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
Original Uncompressed Mono PCM audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Audio commentary by director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott, and actors John Heard, Daniel Stern and Christopher Curry
Brand new crew interviews
Original Theatrical Trailer
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film
Who else has mad love for the C.H.U.D.? I can’t be the only one who thinks this film is actually brilliant. Let’s discuss in the Comments section!