Fondly remembered in cult circles as a surprisingly well-acted low-budget horror diversion, this Reagan-era creature feature boasts a roster of game performances, a plethora of vintage locations from the days when New York City was scary enough by itself, and, of course, that title–one of the most vivid and ludicrous acronyms in film history. A CHUD, as any red-blooded Fangoria subscriber could have told you many months before the movie itself made its way to their hometown, is a cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller. OK, it’s not the most elegant acronym. For one thing, if the underground dwellers are cannibalistic, does that mean they eat humans, or just other humanoids? And if they do eat humans, doesn’t the fact that they are merely humanoid mean they’re not technically cannibals after all? But forget all that. Cannibalistic. Humanoid. Underground. Dwellers. What else do you need to know?
C.H.U.D. may be a great title when it comes to getting butts in seats, but it does make tension-building difficult. For instance, the film opens on a shot of a New Yorker walking a Westie straight up the middle of a completely empty street while wearing a conspicuously cheerful flower-print dress. When she steps too close to a manhole cover, a rubbery claw reaches out from below and yanks the woman under the pavement unceremoniously. What happened to her? CHUDs, obviously. If a government team investigates the sewer system, what will they encounter? It’s gotta be CHUDs. When a portly, jovial cop (John Goodman in an early role!) sits at the counter in a Soho diner and starts sexually harassing the waitress, how will he get his comeuppance? Duh. He’s gonna get CHUDded. No question.
Though the presence of the CHUDs drives everything that happens on screen, they’re not particularly interesting themselves. Moreover, C.H.U.D. keeps the creatures mostly under wraps. Having doled out a miserly share of grisliness in that pre-credits scene, C.H.U.D. settles into a narrative groove that’s slack even by Z-movie standards. Over the course of the next hour, we spend time with George Cooper (John Heard, previously seen in Paul Schrader’s Cat People), a high-end glamour photographer in the process of turning his back on the sexy stuff in favour of documenting the lives of New York’s homeless population; his fashion-model girlfriend, Lauren (the screen debut of Kim Greist, who would pivot from the ridiculous to the sublime by appearing in the following year’s Brazil); and police captain Bosch (Christopher Curry), whose wife has recently joined the city’s swelling roster of missing persons. “Reverend” Shepherd (Daniel Stern) runs a downtown soup kitchen but hasn’t seen a number of his regular patrons for weeks, and shifty bureaucrat Wilson (George Martin) may know something about what’s really going on underground.
There’s also a little girl who claims she saw a monster right before her grandfather disappeared beneath the cobblestones of Crosby Street–and we know she’s telling the truth because we see it, too, all latex and teeth and weird glowy eyes in quick cuts, tearing into the old man as she cowers in the corner of a phone booth. The creature effects are sub-par–or, to put it more kindly, you could say they pay homage to the similarly unconvincing villains who populated the decades of men-in-suits monster movies that came before. Editor Claire Simpson does her best to make them work (she would soon go on to win an Oscar for Platoon), and there are a couple of moderately effective scenes in here, neither of which rely on a CHUD being visible in the frame. In one of them, cribbed shamelessly from Alien, Bosch and Wilson watch live video feeds on television as a crew of cops and government agents stalk the CHUDs with flame throwers. In the other, Greist strips down for a shower scene that ends in a bloody mess. It’s nonsensical on the face of it (unless you’re willing to allow that at least one of the CHUDs must be a sadistic plumber), but it certainly wakes you up.
Elsewhere, C.H.U.D. barely seems interested in being a horror film at all. It’s one measure of its lack of commitment to grindhouse principles that even though a shower scene was awkwardly shoehorned into the script, the film as released is free of nudity. The CHUD attacks themselves tend not to contain any on-screen bloodshed–that’s likely for budgetary reasons, but still. C.H.U.D. isn’t even sure what CHUD stands for *, hedging its campy bets in a late-film bid for topicality that glares angrily at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, of all things. C.H.U.D.‘s bid for conspiracy-thriller status might have a more subversive kick if the script didn’t spin its wheels so tediously; any episode of Hill Street Blues or The Rockford Files has twice the zip in half the running time.
Yet what C.H.U.D. lacks in style and scares it almost makes up for with a surprisingly fine cast and an offhand kind of social realism. The government is super-shady where nuclear waste is concerned, so who knows? Maybe there really are cannibalistic humanoids lurking under the surface of Manhattan–or maybe that’s just an enduring metaphor for the anxiety well-off New Yorkers feel whenever they leave their apartments, avoiding eye contact as they step carefully around the homeless people who live at their doorsteps. Look at it this way: The top five movies of 1984 at the U.S. box-office were Beverly Hills Cop, Ghost Busters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid. Not one of them goes near as far as C.H.U.D. does in communicating something about what it felt like to be living in the U.S. in 1984.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Arrow has brought C.H.U.D. up from below for Blu-ray release via a new 2K scan of a low-contrast print. As usual, Arrow does a great job with challenging material. Every shot looks grainy—the dark scenes that take place underground especially so—but the 1.85:1, 1080p image retains a nicely filmlike texture throughout, despite the fact that a dust-and-scratches clean-up has clearly taken place. Color saturation and dynamic range are pretty strong and don’t seem to have been pushed unnaturally; even the lowest-light scenes are acceptable, if not exactly rich in detail. (A single shot of multiple CHUDs assembled in the shadows is the big exception–a murky mess.) Some crushing is evident; the camera negative may have yielded a sharper picture with more detail in the blacks. Sound quality is both adequate and unexceptional. Music, dialogue, and effects were all competently recorded and are reproduced in single-channel uncompressed mono without much issue. Although the track gets a tad harsh when the volume goes up and the different elements merge into a single shriek, that’s par for the course at this vintage.
At least until the warehouses are emptied, Arrow’s release of C.H.U.D. offers two different edits of the film. Disc 1 contains the 96-minute “integral cut,” the director’s preferred version, which has been widely available on home video. Disc 2 presents an approximation of the original theatrical release, which is missing a few scenes and has had some of the narrative shuffled around so that the film ends, somewhat nonsensically, on CHUD action. Unfortunately for superfans and historians, this shorter edit appears to be a reconstruction (using the same 2K master as a source) rather than an actual theatrical-release element. For one thing, the image quality is almost completely identical to the longer version; for another, some ostensibly humorous overdubbed lines that were added by U.S. distributor New World Pictures before release are missing as a result. (Lauren yells from her apartment window, “Somebody help me!” and an unseen wag responds, “Call the Ghostbusters!” Stuff like that.) Sure, that’s no great loss–and the integral version is superior–but it’s also not exactly the “theatrical cut,” and superfans and historians should be miffed that Arrow didn’t get it right.
The best extra happens to be licensed from an earlier DVD release: the commentary track featuring director Douglas Cheek, story contributor Shepard Abbott, and actors John Heard, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Curry, who were all recorded together. I often find jokey, overly familiar group commentaries to be frustrating, but this one is unusually warm with camaraderie–and extra-special in the way it reveals the collective discontent of its participants. Even during the opening credits, nerves are raw: Parnell Hall’s screenplay credit is booed, and the director claims he never met the composers. I had to reverse and listen again to the bit slightly less than halfway through where the actors in the room compare notes and conclude that the producers still owe them money. (“How can this be going to DVD and we never got paid our lousy $100,000?” someone asks.) As enjoyable as this is, it’s also quite one-sided: Producer Andrew Bonime and screenwriter Parnell Hall are portrayed as bumbling villains but aren’t given the opportunity to defend themselves. This is especially problematic when, for example, Stern claims that he and Curry rewrote half the script and the credited screenwriter has no chance to rebut the assertion. (For his part, Bonime responded with his own website at www.chudfacts.com. The site is offline at this writing but archive.org has preserved it for the ages.)
A second commentary sees Blu-ray producer Michael Felsher interviewing composers Martin Cooper and David A. Hughes, who contributed the film’s electronic, emulator-heavy track under the Cooper Hughes moniker. They remember coming to the project with a combination of inexperience and arrogance. “We fell in the deep end,” admits Cooper, who was at the time a member of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. After a mere half-hour of conversation, the duo’s entire 50-minute score plays uninterrupted, and the music is surprisingly interesting in its own right. Sound quality is quite good, though there are occasional brief artifacts that sound like analog tape glitches.
The remaining features are fairly typical for this sort of title. “A Dirty Look with William Bilowit” (19 mins., HD) and “Dweller Designs with John Caglione, Jr.” (12 mins., HD) are recent interviews with the film’s production designer and make-up FX artist, respectively, in which both men reflect on their careers and the challenges of executing work on a low budget–in Caglione’s case, under explicit and insistent direction from producer Bonime, who pushed his original designs in a more mutated, movie-monster direction. “I basically see myself as a facilitator,” says Caglione, who won an Oscar for Dick Tracy several years later. “You try and be an artist, but you have to make ’em happy.” In “Notes from Above Ground: The NYC Locations of C.H.U.D.” (9 mins., HD), filmmaker Ted Geoghegan and longtime Fangoria Managing Editor Michael Gingold visit the production’s lower Manhattan locations, pointing out every identifiable street corner and manhole cover from the film. Plus there’s an original trailer from New World Pictures (2 mins., 1080i) that’s been cut, naturally, to make C.H.U.D. seem much more action-heavy than it is. (Liner notes and packaging were not made available for this review.)
Finally, Arrow has scraped one little snippet of footage off the cutting-room floor with an “extended” (1 min.) version of the film’s shower scene, transferred in HD from a workprint that’s a bit grungier visually. The sole difference here is the addition of one shot in which the camera tilts down the full length of body double Elizabeth Kaitan (Assault of the Killer Bimbos), starting from the neck. Arrow presents it without context, but there is some discussion of it on the audio commentary, where the participants suggest producer Bonime insisted on including the shot and was only dissuaded when Simpson pointed out that Kaitan’s body didn’t match Greist’s own tan lines as seen in other shots. Film truly is a collaborative process, folks!
* As far as alternate meanings for the word Chud, how about this one? Chud, which apparently can be translated as “wonder men,” was a name given to ancient Siberian miners who dug metals out of the ground in Western Siberia; their workings were discovered by Russians in the early 1700s, and some proved to be rich with ore. A Russian “paranormal news” site refers to a “multilevel underground city” of the Chud people dating, perhaps, to the second or third century A.D., from which mysterious figures are said to have appeared. Now there’s a movie I’d like to see. Could this have been the original inspiration for C.H.U.D.?