Pop Culture

Do-Over Cinema: 1984's C.H.U.D. Taught Us All To Trust The Government Again

No ninja turtles here.
No ninja turtles here. New World Pictures
What makes a so-called "cult movie?" One easy benchmark is "anything you like that nobody else does," but that's kind of a cop-out. A better defintion might be a film that continues to lurk in the public consciousness in spite of poor theatrical box office performance and ... let's call it a lack of widespread critical acclaim. Maybe the movie maintains a loyal core audience, but normal folks respond to inquiries about said film with a cocked head and confused look, like when you call your dog your kid's name. Or vice versa.

Given that, and it being the most wonderful time of the year, heeeere's C.H.U.D. Released in 1984, it didn't make much of a splash at the box office — low-budget horror being as ubiquitous as superhero movies and Ryan Gosling at the time – and were it nor for a recent (okay, 2016) Blu-ray release, no one but cranky weirdos up against a deadline would have mourned its passing. Cough. But now, a whole new audiences is ready for this '80s quasi-classic's warming radioactive glow.

C.H.U.D. ended up being the apex (?) of the "homeless" subgenre of horror. After Reagan kicked the can for community health care down to the states, it seemed like you couldn’t swing a grocery cart without hitting Alice Cooper in Prince of Darkness or a melting dude in Street Trash (barely beaten out by A Passage to India for the "Best Exploding Transient" Oscar). But then, once studios decided the homeless maybe shouldn't be victims of lethal hooch, they were turned into Curly Sue's carefree bus hoppers, who feasted dysentary-free out of dumpsters to the strains of "Walking on Sunshine," probably.

The New York City street people of C.H.U.D. aren't content to be mere surface world pariahs, as a group of so-called "Undergrounders" also haunt the Big Apple's sewers. And if it wasn't bad enough contending with human waste and mutant alligators, now they’re starting to disappear. Given that "C.H.U.D." stands for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers,” it doesn't take Kanye West-levels genius for the audience to figure out what's going on.

Our heroes are an unlikely triumvirate consisting of the NYPD's Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry), photographer George Cooper (Big's John Heard), and A.J. “The Reverend” Shepherd (Daniel City Slickers Stern), who runs a soup kitchen. Bosch's wife and dog are snatched down a manhole in the opening scene, which explains the police's uncharacteristic interest in the homeless' plight, while Shepherd's soup kitchen is unfortunately located below ground, where he begin to take note of his disappearing customers.

[Fun fact: Heard and Stern appear in the first two Home Alone movies, while Curry is in the third.]

click to enlarge This is a Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller and not, in fact, Rudy Giuliani. - NEW WORLD PICTURES
This is a Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller and not, in fact, Rudy Giuliani.
As was usually the case with suspicious monster-related activities in the '80s, the government eventually shows up. And C.H.U.D. does an admirable job capturing the jaded attitude of that era's New Yorkers, whether concerning the disappearance of its citizenry or the possibility of a nuclear incident in their city.  This is especially evident when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission guys in chem-bio suits started sniffing around. Speaking personally, that'd be my first signal to loot a liquor store and barricade myself in the local Cabela's.

The NRC basically says, "Fine, we misplaced some toxic waste underneath the city. but this in no way could be leading to the development of mutations. And even if it did, the results would be cool stuff like telekinesis and shooting ice out of your hands, not cannibalism, ha ha. Heh."

The NYPD, assuming the existence of a solitary C.H.U.D. (still my favorite Neil Diamond song), sends a squad of cops armed with flamethrowers into the sewers to deal with the menace (you didn't really believe that crap about the police being "outgunned" in the '80s, I hope). That said, the C.H.U.D.s are clearly more formidable than your average crackhead, and one police unit becomes nothing more than a plate of hors d'oeuvres for these new wave Morlocks.

There's more, of course, including the requisite government cover-up of the problem. The usual excuses that it's in the name of "public safety" ring kind of hollow in NYC, however. This is, after all, the city that faced off against King Kong, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (another by-product of nuclear shenanigans), and Billy Martin. Anyone thinking these same citizens would quail at the thought of a few slimy mutants emerging from manholes has obviously never seen an entire car of commuters ignore a guy having a seizure on the 6 Train.

click to enlarge "Oh shit, how did Roseanne find us?" - NEW WORLD PICTURES
"Oh shit, how did Roseanne find us?"
Eventually, the C.H.U.D.s emerge from the depths in order to feast upon the city (look for pre-Roseanne John Goodman and pre-Cheers Jay Thomas as cops in the diner scene). One even makes its way three stories up to menace Cooper's girlfriend Lauren (Kim Greist, in her film debut). Mayhem ensues and we learn the NRC has been storing nuclear waste under the city for years, culminating in a final showdown between the unlikely triumvirate of Bosch, Cooper, and A.J. vs. NRC honcho Wilson (George Martin, also in his film debut). Shots are fired, vans explode, and New York is safe for pedestrians once more.

Or as safe as it ever was.

C.H.U.D's a weird movie. Too gory for kids, but not really scary enough for true horror fans. I remember being frightened when I sneaked out of bed to watch it as a kid, but that was probably less about the subject matter than it was getting caught by my parents (and issued a serious talking to, if that). Heard and Stern (and Greist) would go on to some Hollywood success, while director Doug Cheek never helmed another film. In the end, C.H.U.D. works best as a snapshot of life under Reagan, with urban decay, the emptying of mental hospitals, and the persistent specter of nuclear disaster providing a suitable setting for '80s horror. 
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar