A scene from C.H.U.D.

Retro Review: C.H.U.D.


United States. Directed by Douglas Cheek, 1984. Starring John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Cheek. 96 minutes. 6/10

Trouble, oh, we got trouble, ‘neath the streets of New York City! With a capital “T,” that rhymes with “C,” and that stands for C.H.U.D.!

Cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers–or C.H.U.D.s, for short–are kinda like the alligators which are said to live in the sewers of New York. Except they’re not reptiles, they’re homeless people. Or at least, they used to be. They’ve actually mutated into big, slimy, icky monsters with taloned hands and glowing eyes. But the bit about living in New York sewers is accurate, at least.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Lackey,” you ask me, as well you should, “how exactly did homeless people turn into these horrifically cheap-looking beasts?” Well, friend, I’m glad you asked me that. It turns out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been storing vats of toxic waste in the sewers. (It turns out that C.H.U.D. also stands for “contamination hazard, urban disposal.”) When a homeless person comes into contact with the goo, he becomes a C.H.U.D. Since C.H.U.D.s can spread their affliction through biting, pretty soon you’ve got an army of uncontrollably violent Doctor Who monsters wreaking havoc beneath the city. Of course, they’re eventually going to want to come up for a bite.

Who will save us from the twin horrors of the C.H.U.D.s and a callous, ruthless federal bureaucracy? There’s freelance photographer George Cooper (played by John Heard), who is known and trusted by the local homeless population because he took some pictures of them for a magazine article. There’s gruff police Capt. Bosch (Christopher Curry), whose wife and dog were eaten by the C.H.U.D.s. And there’s “Reverend” A.J. Shepherd, who runs the dodgiest soup kitchen in New York. Along with George’s fashion-model girlfriend Lauren (Kim Greist), who doesn’t do much but looks great in her underwear, our intrepid gang of heroes will defeat the C.H.U.D.s and NRC Commissioner Wilson and save the day!

…yeah, right.

What I hope you’ve taken away from all this is that, yes, C.H.U.D. is stupid, and yes, C.H.U.D. is cheap, but it is also a whole lot of fun if you can turn off the part of your brain that notices logical flaws and plot holes. It is, in its own way, a successor to the low-budget monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s, the spiritual child of Roger Corman’s giant leeches.

And while we’re talking about those monsters…sure, they’re not particularly believable, but there’s something endearing about their design, and it’s clear the filmmakers put more money and thought into it than they did the screenplay. Luckily, you’ve got Heard, Stern and Curry rewriting most of their dialog on the fly and the resulting performances are actually rather naturalistic. Heard and Stern, at various points, seem like they’re trying to channel Michael Moriarty in Q.

Meanwhile, Douglas Cheek’s direction isn’t anything to write home about but he at least has the common decency to give you something interesting to look at every so often, such as the image of Greist apparently performing an abortion on a bathtub drain with a coat-hanger, or the sight of a gaggle of C.H.U.D.s apparently worshiping something that resembles a gigantic pile of melted jelly beans.

It’s pure schlock, to be sure, and sometimes you may find yourself paying too much attention to the plot and noticing, for example, that Lauren’s pregnancy doesn’t seem to have any effect on anything else that happens in the movie, or that Bosch could stop the whole clusterfuck just by arresting Wilson about halfway through the movie, or that the screenwriters seem to have forgotten to write an ending. If you find yourself doing that, just grab another beer and try to get back into the flow and you may find yourself moderately rewarded: C.H.U.D. may be many things, but it is rarely boring.

I also discussed C.H.U.D. with Jason Soto & Nolahn of Your Face! on episode 78 of their podcast, The Lair of the Unwanted.

C.H.U.D. poster