Director: Douglas Cheek
Screenplay: Parnell Hall (story by Shepard Abbott)
Stars: John Heard (George Cooper), Daniel Stern (A.J. Shepherd), Christopher Curry (Captain Bosch), Kim Greist (Lauren Daniels), George Martin (Wilson), Brenda Currin (Francine the Landlady), Eddie Jones (Chief O’Brien), Ruth Maleczech (Mrs. Monroe), John Ramsey (Commissioner), John Bedford-Lloyd (Shadow Man)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.S.
C.H.U.D. Blu-ray

In one of the more amusing entries in his book The New York Grimpendium: A Guide to Macabre and Ghastly Sites in New York State, J.W. Ocker imagines the pitch meeting for C.H.U.D., in which a roomful of moneymen immediately agree to fund the movie based on the title alone. “And seriously,” Ocker writes, “what even apathetic movie watcher isn’t going to pay attention to a movie with a title like C.H.U.D., much less the dedicated horror movie fan. How can anybody resist the urge to reference the title at random but regularly occurring occasions, further perpetuating its legacy? Who cares about the movie itself? The title is reward.” And a great title it is: An acronym for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers” (although it is later revealed to have a second meaning that is purposefully obscured by the whole cannibal thing), it exits your mouth with delightfully blunt force—chud!. And while the movie doesn’t quite live up to that title, it is still a fun slice of Reagan-era monster madness that embodies more than a few of its era’s political and environmental fears.

C.H.U.D. is first and foremost an urban horror movie—a kind of B-movie creature-feature variation on Taxi Driver’s portrait of New York inner-city hell, except rather than just insidious steam belching from the manholes in the wet pavement, we get mutated humanoids looking to feed on the city’s denizens. That is precisely what happens in the film’s opening moments, as a woman walking her dog down the street alone at night is dragged screaming beneath the city street, one of her shoes left behind to be swept away the next morning by the street sweeper. The woman turns out to be the wife of Captain Bosch (Christopher Curry), a homicide investigator who becomes determined to find out what happened to her, even though his superiors keep warning him not to dig too deep (always the sign of a nefarious cover-up). His investigation brings him together with two other men who are following similar trails: George Cooper (John Heard), a photographer whose model girlfriend (Kim Greist) wants him to do fashion shoots, but who wants to do serious photojournalism about New York’s homeless population, and A.J. “Reverend” Shepherd (Daniel Stern), a frazzle-haired hippie who runs a soup kitchen and has noticed that his regulars have been disappearing over the past several weeks amid rumors of monsters in the sewers.

The idea of monsters dwelling in the dark, nasty spaces beneath our cities is nothing new. In the 1800s there were stories about ferocious black pigs breeding in London’s sewers, and accounts of alligators living in the sewers beneath Manhattan date back to the 1920s, an urban legend that was given vivid literary treatment by Thomas Pynchon in his 1963 novel V. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine the subterranean world of sewer, subway, and access tunnels being home to all manner of terrible things, and C.H.U.D. merges that sense of urban-legend fearmongering with then-topical concerns about toxic and radioactive waste—the noxious, lethal byproduct of the atomic age and the nuclear arms race that, as the movie would have it, is responsible for turning the city’s underground homeless population into massive humanoid killers with glowing eyes and bulging necks.

It’s a great B-movie premise, and director Douglas Cheek, a documentary editor making his lone appearance in the director’s chair, gives it a solid go, merging horror conventions with the kind of political paranoia that fueled movies like The Parallax View (1974) a decade earlier. The film’s villain is really Wilson (George Martin), a corrupt bureaucrat for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission whose despicable dumping of toxic waste in the sewer system is the root of the problem. The C.H.U.D.s are, if anything, victims, albeit ones with mouths full of sharp teeth, handfuls of claws, and a nasty disposition that causes them to make short work of anyone who comes within their reach (including various government workers, whose neon-yellow-clad remains are scattered all over the sewers, and a pair of cops played by then-unknown John Goodman and Jay Thomas).

C.H.U.D. was a minor theatrical hit and took on a life of its own on video, where its ubiquitous presence in early video stores and on cable television turned it into a beloved cult favorite among low-grade horror enthusiasts. Interestingly, though, virtually no one behind the camera went on to do anything else. Cheek, whose work as director is better than you might expect, went back to editing documentaries, including Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004), Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices (2005), and the PBS production Empires: Peter & Paul and the Christian Revolution (2003), which he also co-directed. Similarly, neither screenwriter Parnell Hall nor Shepard Abbott, who got story credit, ever penned another script (Hall turned to writing mystery novels). There is some controversy about the script, as actors Daniel Stern and Christopher Curry claim to have extensively rewritten it themselves, much to the consternation of producer Andrew Bonime, who worked for half a decade to get the film made, but never produced anything else (he has since gone into eBusiness and penned the textbook Writing for New Media).

The film did help launch a few bourgeoning careers, including editor Claire Simpson, who went on to edit several of Oliver Stone’s films (including 1986’s Platoon, for which she won an Oscar) and British composer David A. Hughes, whose bombastic electronic work here led to a lengthy career scoring mostly independent films (including Guy Ritchie’s 1998 debut, Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels). Makeup designer John Caglione Jr., a protégé of Dick Smith and Tom Savini, has gone on to an extensive career in makeup effects work, winning an Oscar for Dick Tracy (1990), and the film was also an early success for casting legend Bonnie Timmerman, whose career was just beginning to take off. Of course, in front of the camera Timmerman managed to land John Heard and Daniel Stern, both of whom were near the beginnings of the careers, but had already appeared in several well-known films; Heard had had starring roles in Cutter’s Way(1981) and Cat People (1982), and Stern had memorable supporting roles in Breaking Away (1979) and Diner (1982). Their respective performances certainly elevate the film (similar productions often run aground on amateurish theatrics), and while no one will ever mistake C.H.U.D. for a work of cinematic genius, it is a fun eco-horror diversion whose patience, political themes, and willingness to play out a mystery rather than just head straight for the throat (which it does eventually) makes it more than just a rote exercise in underground monster mayhem.

C.H.U.D. Two-Disc Special Edition Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott, and actors John Heard, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Curry
  • Audio track featuring isolated score selections and an interview with composers Martin Cooper and David A. Hughes
  • “A Dirty Look” interview with production designer William Bilowit
  • “Dweller Designs” interview with special make-up effects and creature creator John Caglione, Jr.
  • “Notes From Above Ground: The NYC Locations of C.H.U.D.” featurette
  • Behind-the-scenes gallery
  • Extended shower scene
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Michael Gingold
  • DistributorArrow Video
    Release DateNovember 23, 2016

    Given that it was a relatively low-budget B-movie, C.H.U.D. looks pretty amazing in Arrow Video’s new high-definition transfer, which was made from a brand new restoration of the original film elements (which I take to mean the 35mm camera negative). The image is slightly soft, in keeping with the look of low-budget mid-’80s film production, but it suits the film nicely. That is not to say that there isn’t some impressive detail, especially in the scenes underground, which really bring out the rot and grim of the subterranean world (actually, pretty much all of New York int his film looks grimy and dirty, even above ground). Color is strong and natural, and contrast and black levels look good, even in the darkest underground scenes. I should note that Arrow’s Blu-ray offers two versions of the film: the 88-minute theatrical cut, which was edited pretty severely by its distributor, New World Pictures, after test screenings, and the 96-minute “Intregral Version,” which reflected the original director’s cut and includes a number of cut scenes plus some that are reordered (the diner massacre featuring John Goodman and Jay Thomas is rightfully returning the last third of the film, rather than the very end). The original monaural soundtrack is presented in Uncompressed PCM Mono, and I can’t complain. It is a bit flat and limited, given the source, but there is some decent depth at times and David A. Hughes’s pulsating synthesizer score has a good deal of punch.
    The supplements on Arrow Video’s Blu-ray are a nice mix of the old and the new. From the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD we have a rather contentious audio commentary by director Douglas Cheek, writer Shepard Abbott, and actors John Heard, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Curry, all of whom were recorded together. Everyone on the track certainly gets along and enjoyed themselves recording it, and they drop more than a few bombshells on their collaborators, including screenwriter Parnell Hall, whose credit several of them actively boo, and producer Andrew Bonime, who felt so slighted by his treatment in the commentary that he launched a now defunct website to “set the record straight.” The track is certainly a fun listen, although it is acrimonious and downright mean-spirited at times and frequently devolves into Mystery Science Theater 3000-style wisecracks, cussing, and fits of laughter. Arrow has also added a new audio track that features isolated score selections and an interview with composers Martin Cooper and David A. Hughes. There are also three new featurettes: “A Dirty Look,” which is a 19-minute interview with production designer William Bilowit; “Dweller Designs,” a 12-minute interview with special make-up effects and creature creator John Caglione, Jr.; and “Notes From Above Ground: The NYC Locations of C.H.U.D.,” a 9-minute featurette in which journalist Michael Gingold (writer/editor of Rue Morgue) and filmmaker Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) revisit a number of the film’s Big Apple locations, virtually of which look much, much cleaner than they did when they were being filmed back in 1983. Also from the Anchor Bay DVD we have a 5-minute behind-the-scenes slideshow gallery (mostly of effects work), an extended version of the shower scene that features a bit of nudity courtesy of body double Liz Kaiten and more gore at the end, and an original theatrical trailer. The Arrow Blu-ray is also packaged with a fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Michael Gingold.

    Copyright © 2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Arrow Video

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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