C.H.U.D.‘s acronym, Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, gives the film a distinctly corny connotation; it reads like a schlocky Troma picture, or something Roger Corman might cook up in a flash for easy bucks (Humanoids from the Deep being a Corman-produced picture that even shares the same noun). Parnell Hall’s screenplay might revel in some of the more comical aspects of B-movie horror, but it also manages to conjure up a lot of overarching societal commentary in the process, filtering the metaphor through a series of bloody gags and a comical cast that includes Daniel Stern before he went on to play a Wet and Sticky Bandit, John Heard before he lost Kevin McAllister twice, and John Goodman before he met Roseanne.
C.H.U.D‘s central location is the dumps of New York City, in the ’80s a haven for crime and graffiti and a wasteland for homeless people who couldn’t get out of their rut. Douglas Cheek’s direction emphasizes the dingy stench of NYC, the grime both above and below ground; while the City itself might be grungy, it pales in comparison to the homeless’ plights underneath it in the sewers, living in squalor and aided only by a few good souls including Stern’s Reverend A.J. Shepherd running a soup kitchen and Heard’s George Cooper, a photographer sick of documenting glitz and glamour who has become much more interested in capturing the essence of homeless life in and under the streets.
The film follows Cooper and the Reverend along with NYC cop Bosch (Christopher Curry) as they attempt to reveal a government cover-up that has been creating cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers within the sewer systems – basically, mutated homeless people who, thanks to some nuclear waste disposal underneath NYC, have now become the entire city’s problem rather than just bums on the street.
Cheek splits up C.H.U.D. between the three main characters, often shifting between perspectives as they meet with each other, run into danger together, and ultimately become the saviors of the city when Wilson (George Martin) decides to foolishly flood the sewers with gas in hopes of killing all remaining C.H.U.D. creatures. The film has a large cast of characters, and the film’s triad of stories is often difficult to manage; at times, C.H.U.D. forgets about its other characters in favor of another, most notably George Cooper’s role in the film. With the addition of Cooper’s girlfriend Lauren (Kim Greist), Cheek has difficulty maintaining the large cast, one of C.H.U.D.‘s most noticeable flaws.
Besides that, though, the film hits its stride with both Bosch and the Reverend, who trade barbs at first and then find common ground. Hall’s script drives home the societal metaphor early, with Stern’s character being the main purveyor of the message; living in filth, working for no money, he’s a character who simply cares for the homeless of the city rather than ignoring them, and he quickly latches onto Bosch’s investigation when he realizes that the police only care about disappearances in the city when the disappeared is someone important. Stern really gets to shine when he sticks it to the bureaucratic bigwigs at the NRC, a key moment for the film.
The commentary itself is what gives C.H.U.D. its lasting appeal, though. Though the movie certainly has its comedic charms and some excellent gore effects along with creative alien-like C.H.U.D. monsters, its main theme is inflammatory; society would rather ignore a problem like homelessness until it becomes too big of an issue to hide, and by that time, it’s too late. The C.H.U.D.s are symbols of how government treats its downtrodden, and the real meaning of the acronym – Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal – blasts real agencies doing shady things and keeping them from the public eye.
And so C.H.U.D. succeeds not just as B-movie entertainment – because it has that in spades, from its comical violence to its intentionally cheesy special effects – but as a political thinkpiece as well, a lesson that is unfortunately still required even three decades later.
Click page 2 for the Arrow Video Blu-Ray review!