First things first: The Stuff is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I’m a perennial consumer of crap film, most recently blasting through the entire Da Vinci Code trilogy for no discernible reason. I’m always down for a Sharknado viewing, and I’ll quote Troll 2 with glee—but, wow, The Stuff reeks. I don’t say this to dissuade you from watching the 1985 B-movie horror flick; I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into. (Hat tip to the Takeout reader who recommended I watch The Stuff a few months back after I professed my love for bad movies.)
Directed by Larry Cohen (It’s Alive; As Good As Dead), The Stuff focuses on a wildly popular new dessert item that hits store shelves after quite literally appearing out of nowhere. Known only as “The Stuff,” the creamy white product is low in calories and tastes great—so great that, as explained in the product jingle, “enough is never enough.” That’s not just marketing jargon. Turns out that The Stuff is highly addictive, turning consumers into zombies called Stuffies who meet their demise as The Stuff consumes them from the inside out.
The Stuff’s plot is about as coherent as one might expect. The film opens on a railroad worker who trudges into the snow to take a leak during his graveyard shift. He hears a mysterious burbling and shines his flashlight on a puddle of pulsating white goo bursting geyser-like from the ground. He scoops some up, declares it to be “so smooth,” puts it in his mouth (???) and proclaims that it’s “mighty good.” He then shares the goo with a coworker, declaring, “There might be enough of it here that we could sell to people.” This is the dawning of The Stuff.
Things escalate pretty quickly from there. We meet a young boy named Jason who gets wise to The Stuff’s sinister nature after he sees it crawling across the refrigerator shelf. We then meet our hero, disgraced FBI agent and self-proclaimed “industrial saboteur” Moe Rutherford, played by renowned conspiracy theorist, jazz musician, and Law & Order alum Michael Moriarty. A group of champagne-slugging ice cream magnates hire Rutherford to spy on the company making The Stuff in a Slugworthian effort to steal the formula.
One by one, Rutherford tracks down the executives and distributors behind The Stuff. They all have one thing in common: none of them will eat it. Rutherford also discovers that most of the FDA team that approved The Stuff has resigned and left the country. We do meet one former FDA employee who feeds The Stuff to his giant doberman; unfortunately, the dog kills and eats his owner when he runs out of The Stuff, biting into his master’s jugular just as he screams, “I’LL FIND MORE!”
At one point The Stuff Company’s CEO, the mysterious Mr. Fletcher, looks Rutherford in the eye and tells him that his doctor won’t allow him to eat the product. “I don’t know what it is,” Fletcher tells Rutherford without expressing a single ethical qualm. “Let go of it, Mr. Rutherford. You can’t stop it.”
Along the way, Rutherford picks up Nicole, the advertising executive behind The Stuff’s launch campaign. She’s wracked with guilt, which she expresses by taking Rutherford straight to Pound Town. Together they rescue young Jason, who’s been arrested after vandalizing a supermarket display of The Stuff. (In my personal favorite scene, we see Jason screaming, “It’s gonna kill you, it’s gonna kill you all!” while he gets tackled by grocery store associates.)
Eventually, Rutherford enlists a sexually frustrated alt-right colonel to blow The Stuff’s distribution operation to smithereens. We think we’re in for a happy ending—that is, until Rutherford confronts the CEO, Fletcher, who reveals that the company is already working on a new product called The Taste. The film ends with smugglers selling The Stuff on the black market, proving what we already knew to be true: you can’t beat The Stuff.
Is The Stuff a masterful satire? No. It’s actually a pretty poor one. The film tries to tackle a million things at once: capitalism, diet foods, even the military industrial complex. We also never figure out where The Stuff comes from. Is it an extraterrestrial substance? Is it a commentary on exploiting the Earth’s resources? Why, God, why did that unfortunate railroad worker put it in his mouth in the first place? The mind reels.
While The Stuff is definitely lacking in substance—you could say it’s got low nutritional value—it’s also fast-paced and packed with solid B-movie moments. We get supermodels strutting down a catwalk in fur coats while feeding each other The Stuff. We get a disgraced junk food mogul named Chocolate Chip Charlie. We get a series of goons who turn out to be piles of The Stuff crammed into human flesh suits. (One of them nearly pancakes Rutherford in a branded delivery van. The Stuff can drive!)
And while The Stuff is a moderately idiotic flick, it’s also an astute summary of diet culture as it existed in the 1980s (and still exists today under the murky guise of “wellness”). Take young Jason, who lost his entire family to The Stuff. Jason’s father sucks down The Stuff by the barrel because “it kills the bad things inside us.” His mother gleefully proclaims, “We’re dieting! I’ve lost five pounds already this week and I’ve never felt better.” Meanwhile, a subterranean organism is tearing through her insides Tremors-style. But, hey—weight loss!
The marketing of The Stuff echoes all of diet culture’s most pernicious myths: that you’ll never get tired, that you’ll drop weight in a matter of hours, that you’ll be a better friend, partner, and family member if you just eat this one product, follow this one diet. As a whole, The Stuff echoes the cultishness of quick-fix dieting that began in the early 1900s—Tapeworm Diet, anyone?—and really infiltrated store shelves in the 1980s during the dawn of the fat- and sugar-free craze.
Time and time again, that kind of marketing successfully sells three bitter lies: that fatness is a treatable ailment (“just eat this thing we sell!”); that lingering fatness must indicate some sort of inner failure (after all, losing the weight is as easy as eating a particular product!); and, most dangerously, that weight loss is essential for good health, even if it involves consuming a product that makes Swiss cheese of your insides. Those are some lucrative lies to maintain, and they’re still in heavy circulation. Take fen-phen, a weight loss drug released in the early 1990s that combined fenfluramine and phentermine. Fen-phen promised dramatic weight loss over the course of a month—but it also caused irreversible heart valve damage. And while fen-phen was removed from the market in 1997, doctors are still prescribing phentermine, which comes with its own barrage of health consequences.
Then there’s Alli, the first over-the-counter weight loss pill released in the early 2000s. Alli won’t kill you, but it’ll send excess fat shooting out of your body in the form of spontaneous oily butt secretions. And of course, let’s not forget the 1,200-calorie diet, which will probably make you lose weight—at the expense of failing to provide adequate nutrition to keep your organs operating at full capacity.
It all comes down to one simple fact: for the companies shilling these products, weight loss has never been about health. And yet we can’t get enough. As long as marketers and medical professionals continue to tell people that weight loss equals health, we’ll see endless variations of The Stuff on store shelves. Ultimately, as cheesy an ’80s artifact as it may be, The Stuff drives home the question at the core of diet culture: are you eating it, or is it eating you?
The Stuff is currently streaming free on TUBI.