As a horror fan, you go into something like C.H.U.D. with certain expectations. There are always the films we know have something to say and watch with a deeper understanding of the themes and cultural relevance. Movies like Dawn of the Dead, The Thing, Videodrome and so on and so forth. Then there are the features you watch because want good, stupid, cheesy fun. A nice, rubbery creature feature. Sometimes that kind of pure entertainment can hit the spot in a way that a deeper film can’t.
I went into C.H.U.D. with exactly those expectations. The monsters had always looked enticing on the VHS art, the premise sounded like exactly the kind of absurd ‘80s cheese that I loved. Don’t get me wrong, though, C.H.U.D. does deliver on the promise of its acronym—in some ways, at least—and does offer everything you expect from a low-budget creature feature.
It offers a lot more than that, as well. The first time I saw it, that genuinely surprised me. This doesn’t just have an environmental bent, this is an environmental political thriller that happens to be a monster movie at the same time. And that’s awesome. Yes, it’s cheesy and it’s cheap. But a feature can be goofy and smart. It’s kind of amazing, but that’s exactly what C.H.U.D. is.
There’s an earnest nature to the movie as we have characters who seem to genuinely want to help and to change what’s going on. The NRC are made out to be not only terrible, but completely incompetent and this kind of ‘80s social commentary is not overly subtle. But it does result in the great twist that totally changes the course of the whole story.
Most horror fans aware of the title know that C.H.U.D. stands for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.” But that’s not actually true. Over the course of the movie, it’s revealed that the letters actually stand for “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal.” The fact that these are not creatures that were somehow created by the government and are in fact homeless citizens mutated by a chemical spill that the government tried to cover up changes the whole dynamic. It spins the film on its head. It doesn’t make it any less absurd necessarily, but it becomes a different type of B-Movie, at the very least.
There are events that transpire in C.H.U.D. that we barely even see happen now. Not only does it balance an environmental sub-plot, but there’s also a discussion about abortion in the middle of the movie—one that admittedly comes out of nowhere—that handles the topic with more tact than most films and TV shows that try to address the topic, even now. To hear the guy so readily say “it’s your body, it’s your decision and I’ll support you either way” is almost alienating to hear in 2017.
I’ll admit, not everything in C.H.U.D. works smoothly. It’s great that a monster movie can also have this political thriller subplot, but the balance is a bit off. There’s way more focus on exposing the truth and uncovering the big secret than there is on the actual monsters themselves. Admittedly, the creatures get forgotten at points and there’s a hunger to see more of them, especially for fans of features like this and of practical makeup FX.
Still, there’s a lot going for it. Way more than I think most people remember. The cast is strong, including not one but two future Home Alone stars in John Heard as the male leads. There’s also a quick appearance by John Goodman as a police officer just before his career truly began to take off.
The creatures themselves are great. The monster designs are cool as hell. The way the story unfolds is just as interesting. If there’s a way to tell your story about government corruption and coverup, about pollution and the destruction of the environment in a way that also includes carnivorous mutants, that’s always the way to do it. That’s the right option. I wish we could see more movies like C.H.U.D. now, but there’s something about that perfect blend of social consciousness, gooey effects and campy humor that is so uniquely eighties. It’s not something that could ever be made now and in some ways, that’s one of the most endearing things about it.
C.H.U.D. is perhaps better than it has any right to be, but things that are better than they should be are often even greater because of that. It’s not just a creature feature, but at the same time, it really is. That’s what makes it endearing. That’s why it’s still remembered as a cult classic even after a sequel that tried as hard as it could to tarnish that memory. Not that I’m blaming Bud the C.H.U.D. for anything, it’s just much more of a lower-grade Return of the Living Dead sequel than a true follow-up, because that’s what it was originally intended to be.
This is still remembered. It still has fans. It didn’t ultimately do much to help the environment. We’re still doomed on that front, but that’s precisely why things like C.H.U.D. will always have their place. We need horror to deal with the cultural fears we’re always going to have, and if they can do it in a comfortable, tongue-in-cheek manner, all the better. Plus, the word has seeped in and cemented itself in pop culture. It has everyday usage, even if nobody knows where it comes from. That’s pretty cool.