The film was screened out of competition at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.
Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is a vampire, promising specially chosen humans eternal life as her vampire lovers. As the film begins, her companion is John (David Bowie), a talented cellist whom she married in 18th century France. In a night club in New York, they connect with a young couple who they bring home and feed upon by slashing their throats with a bladed Ankh pendant. The bodies are disposed of by an incinerator in the basement of John and Miriam's elegant New York townhouse, where they pose as a wealthy couple who teach classical music.
Approximately 200 years after his turning, John begins suffering insomnia and ages years in only a few days. John realizes Miriam's promise that periodically killing and feeding upon human victims would give him eternal youth was only partially true: he will have eternal life but not eternal youth. He seeks out Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a gerontologist, alongside her boyfriend Tom (Cliff De Young), who specialises in the effects of rapid aging in primates, hoping she will be able to reverse his accelerating decrepitude. Sarah assumes that John is a hypochondriac or mentally unbalanced and ignores his pleas for help. As John leaves the clinic in a rage, Sarah is horrified to see how rapidly he is aging. John rebuffs her once she tries to help him.
One of the Blaylocks' students, Alice Cavender (Beth Ehlers), drops by their townhouse to say that she cannot attend the next day's lesson. In a last attempt to regain his youth, John murders and feeds upon Alice, whom Miriam was grooming to be her next consort when she came of age, to no avail. John begs Miriam to kill him and release him from the agony of his decrepit body. Weeping, Miriam tells him there is no release. After John collapses in the basement, Miriam carries him into the attic full of coffins and places him in one. Like John, Miriam's former vampire lovers suffer an eternal living death, helplessly moaning and trapped in their coffins. Later, a police official comes to the residence, looking for the missing Alice. Miriam feigns ignorance and claims that her husband is in Switzerland.
Sarah comes looking for John at his home but only finds Miriam, who now feels alone after losing both John and Alice. The two have a sexual encounter, during which Miriam bites her arm and some of Miriam's blood enters Sarah's body. Miriam attempts to initiate Sarah in the necessities of life as a vampire, but Sarah is repulsed by the thought of subsisting on human blood.
Sarah returns home and goes out to dinner with Tom, who becomes argumentative about her 3-hour disappearance at the Blaylock residence, of which she is strangely quiet. The next day at the lab, the team investigates Sarah's blood by Tom's authority and reveal she has some kind of infection that is taking over. Confused, Sarah returns to confront Miriam about her sudden changes. Still reeling from the effects of her vampiric transformation, Sarah allows Miriam to put her to bed in a guest room.
Tom arrives on Miriam's doorstep, trying to find Sarah. Miriam shows him to the upstairs bedroom. Sarah, starving and desperate, kills Tom. Miriam assures her that she will soon forget what she was. As the two kiss, Sarah drives Miriam's ankh-knife into her own throat and holds her mouth over Miriam's, forcing Miriam to ingest her blood, possibly working on a hunch regarding the "blood borne metabolic aging disease" and "host" relationship she was told about affecting her blood. Miriam carries Sarah upstairs, intending to place her with her other boxed lovers. A rumbling occurs and the mummies of Miriam's previous lovers emerge from their coffins, driving her over the edge of the balcony. As she rapidly ages, the mummies become dust, ostensibly providing the trapped souls with release.
The police investigator returns to find a real estate agent showing the townhouse to prospective buyers. Sarah is now in London, standing on the balcony of a chic apartment tower, admiring the view as dusk falls. From a draped coffin in a storage room, Miriam repeatedly screams Sarah's name.Catherine Deneuve as Miriam Blaylock
David Bowie as John Blaylock
Susan Sarandon as Dr. Sarah Roberts
Cliff De Young as Tom Haver
Beth Ehlers as Alice Cavender
Dan Hedaya as Lieutenant Allegrezza
Suzanne Bertish as Phyllis
James Aubrey as Ron
John Stephen Hill as Young disco man
Ann Magnuson as Young disco woman
Shane Rimmer as Arthur Jelinek
Bessie Love as Lillybelle
Willem Dafoe as 1st phone booth youth
John Pankow as 2nd phone booth youth
Bauhaus as Disco Group
The final scene of Sarah on the balcony was added at the studio's behest, with a view to leaving the film open-ended and allowing for possible sequels. Sarandon later expressed regret that this sequence seemed to make no sense in the context of the rest of the film: "The thing that made the film interesting to me was this question of, 'Would you want to live forever if you were an addict?' But as the film progressed, the powers that be rewrote the ending and decided that I wouldn't die, so what was the point? All the rules that we'd spent the entire film delineating, that Miriam lived forever and was indestructible, and all the people that she transformed [eventually] died, and that I killed myself rather than be an addict [were ignored]. Suddenly I was kind of living, she was kind of half dying... Nobody knew what was going on, and I thought that was a shame."
Bowie was excited to work on the film but was concerned about the final product. He said "I must say, there's nothing that looks like it on the market. But I'm a bit worried that it's just perversely bloody at some points."
Howard Blake was musical director on The Hunger. Although a soundtrack album accompanied the film's release (Varese Sarabande VSD 47261), this issue omits much of the music used in the film. Blake also composed the orchestral score for Flash Gordon (1980) alongside rock band Queen and the Oscar-winning animated short film of Raymond Briggs', The Snowman (1982).
Blake's notes on working with director Tony Scott: "Tony wanted to create a score largely using classical music and I researched this, many days going to his home in Wimbledon with stacks of recordings to play to him. One of these was the duet for 2 sopranos from Delibes' Lakmé, which I recorded specially with Elaine Barry and Judith Rees, conducting my orchestra The Sinfonia of London. Howard Shelley joined with Ralph Holmes and Raphael Wallfisch to record the second movement of Schubert's Piano Trio in E flat. Ralph recorded the Gigue from Bach's Violin Partita in E and Raphael the Prelude to Bach's solo cello sonata in G, to which Bowie mimed. I was persuaded to appear in one scene as a pianist, for which I wrote a 'Dolphin Square Blues'. Tony wanted to add a synthesizer score and I introduced him to Hans Zimmer, then working at The Snake Ranch Studio in Fulham but Tony eventually used a score by Michel Rubini and Denny Jaeger with electronics by David Lawson. It is hard however to exactly separate these elements."
The Hunger received mixed reviews upon its release and was particularly criticised for being heavy on atmosphere and visuals but slow on pace and plot. Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, described the film as "an agonizingly bad vampire movie". He remarked that the sex scene between Deneuve and Sarandon is effective, but that the film is so heavy on set design and scene cuts that any sense of a story is lost. In a brief review in Rolling Stone, Michael Sragow similarly called it "A minor horror movie with a major modern-movie problem: director Tony Scott develops so many ingenious ways to illustrate his premise that there's no time left to tell a story." Camille Paglia wrote in Sexual Personae (1990) that The Hunger comes close to being a masterpiece of a "classy genre of vampire film", but is "ruined by horrendous errors, as when the regal Catherine Deneuve is made to crawl around on all fours, slavering over cut throats." Elaine Showalter called The Hunger a "post-modernist vampire film" that "casts vampirism in bisexual terms, drawing on the tradition of the lesbian vampire...Contemporary and stylish, [it] is also disquieting in its suggestion that men and women in the 1980s have the same desires, the same appetites, and the same needs for power, money, and sex."
The film has found a cult following that responded to its dark, glamorous atmosphere. The Bauhaus song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" plays over the opening scene and credits. The film is popular with some segments of the goth subculture and inspired a short-lived TV series of the same name although the series has no direct plot or character connection to it". The Hunger was nominated for the Saturn Awards for Best Costume and Best Make-up. It holds a 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 29 reviews.
On 23 September 2009, Warner Bros. announced it planned a remake of the film, with the screenplay written by Whitley Strieber.