Ugly. Slobbering. Ferocious. Carnivorous.
I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for the VHS-era, despite being a young and impressionable horror fan at its height. I much preferred the era of cheap DVD rental, but like many fans I remember some VHS boxes fondly. One of the ones I remember most vividly belonged to C.H.U.D. It features a creature (almost like the Cryptkeeper, but with glowing eyes) pushing up a manhole cover in the foreground with the New York City skyline in the background. To the young me it was all equally exotic – my small town didn’t have manholes or manhole covers, a skyline, or creepy creatures coming up from the underground. For whatever reason, though, I never took that VHS off the shelf to rent it, so I came to C.H.U.D. as an adult. It’s a bizarre example of 80s horror with lots of cult appeal, but its marketing is more effective than its filmmaking.
George Cooper (John Heard, Home Alone) is a photographer tasked with photographing New York City’s homeless population. Through a series of mishaps, he ends up trapped underground while others are investigating the recent glut of disappearances among the homeless population. What we learn is that someone dumped radioactive waste underground, turning some of the homeless into Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.
Low budget filmmaking is famous for not being particularly concerned with the status of a script before shooting. Roger Corman would famously commission films based on posters and titles that he thought he could sell rather than on satisfying screenplays that might lead to audiences enjoying the film. C.H.U.D. feels like a film made out of that style of production. The basic premise – radioactive waste mutating people – is a solid one. C.H.U.D. was released the same year as The Toxic Avenger and a year before Return of the Living Dead took the same premise and made the victims explicitly zombies.
There’s something to this approach. The radioactive mutation material immediately suggests some plot elements (an investigation, a government conspiracy) as well as a few set-pieces that arise natural from the material. The film’s opening is a great example. We follow a typical New Yorker as she walks her dog, but then we see a manhole cover leaking steam and things don’t end well for either party. There are a handful of scenes like this in the movie, where strongly suggestive (as opposed to blood’n’guts explicit) filmmaking leads to some wonderful moments that fans of cult 80s horror will surely love.
The film also gets points for having a decent cast. John Heard is perfect as the fashion photographer who’s given up the cocaine jetset lifestyle to photograph important stuff. Kim Greist is great as his model girlfriend who’s afraid of the dark. It’s also great to see Daniel Stern in an early role as the head of a homeless shelter (who is initially a suspect).
Where C.H.U.D. falls down, however, is in not doing anything beyond the bare minimum to connect the few cool-looking moments that probably got the film funded in the first place. Sure, the opening scene with the dog-walking is great. The scenes in the sewers can be tense. But the material – the police investigation and Cooper’s photographic pursuits – don’t really elevate the material. This leaves viewers waiting, simply marking time, in between the more “horror” aspects of the film. If they came more abundantly and frequently it would be possible to overlook the lackluster plot. As it is, the film is probably worth watching for those who grew up on it, and those willing to kill time between killings.
Nobody told the folks at Arrow Video that, though. They’ve pulled out all the stops to bring the film to Blu-ray. Things kick off with a 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer sourced from a 35mm low-contrast print. Considering the original elements aren’t an option, this transfer looks pretty great. Damage isn’t a huge problem, confined mostly to some speckling, while detail remains impressive. Colors are a bit muted, but not distractingly so. Black levels are deep, but shadow detail sometimes suffers. For a film of this vintage and budget it looks good, but not great. The film’s LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack is in slightly better shape. The film’s dialogue is clean and clear, balanced appropriately with the score and effects. Hiss and distortion aren’t a problem.
Extras, though, are where this release shines. It’s a two disc set, and the first disc offers up the “Integral Cut,” which runs 96 minutes. It’s basically the “unrated” or “director’s cut” version of the film. This version has two commentaries. The first features the cast (including Heard, Stern, Christopher Curry, Douglas Cheek, and Shep Abbott) talking about the making of the film and how it didn’t turn out as planned. The second features an interview with composer Michael Felsher along with the isolated score. We get a couple of featurettes that look at the film’s production design and make-up effects, as well as a tour of the film’s lower-Manhattan locations. There’s also some behind the scenes footage, as well as a longer version of the film’s shower scene that features more skin. The film’s trailer is also included.
The second disc (available only in the Limited Edition release) features the film’s theatrical cut. It’s only 86 minutes long, and the cuts don’t appear to make much sense. But for completists it’s a treat. A booklet with information on the release and an essay on the film is included as well.
Chances are you already know if C.H.U.D. is a film you either need to see or own on Blu-ray. If you’re looking for 80s cult goodness, look no further (though you could probably do better than this film). If you know what you’re getting into, this Blu-ray is exactly the release to own. It’s got solid picture and sound along with some excellent extras in an attractive package.