At the time of PIRANHA (1978), director Joe Dante was known as an editor and screenwriter John Sayles a novelist. Other famous folk who got their start on this film included producer Jon Davison and special effects technicians Rob Bottin and Chris Walas (and, if you count 1981’s non-Roger Corman affiliated PIRANHA II, James Cameron). Look also for appearances by future Dante regulars like Dick Miller and Kevin McCarthy in small roles, along with the Italian scream queen Barbara Steele and the late director/actor Paul Bartel.
PIRANHA was of course a direct rip-off of JAWS, and Corman was nearly sued over that fact by Universal Pictures. It was only through the intervention of Steven Spielberg that the lawsuit was averted (he apparently foresaw his relationship with Dante, who went on to direct the Spielberg produced TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, GREMLINS, INNERSPACE, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH and SMALL SOLDIERS). PIRANHA was, in any event, a big success, and spawned an inevitable remake in 1995, in which piranha attack footage from the original film was shamelessly reused.
When a strain of mutant piranha escape from a secluded army testing site into an adjacent lake, watch out! The critters’ first victims are a couple who unwisely decide to skinny dip in the Piranha’s tank. Once the things enter the lake, all Hell breaks loose as piranha bite through the ropes holding together a wooden raft to nibble on its inhabitants, and even devour their own mad scientist creator.
There’s even more trouble on the horizon, as the grand opening of a deluxe swimming resort, located on the piranha-infested lake, is at hand! Paul Grogan, a local outdoorsman, and Maggie, a hot police investigator, race to stop the resort opening. In the meantime the piranha attack several young summer campers, in the process dragging a woman counselor into the deep.
And that’s only an appetizer for the hungry piranha, who go on to chomp a diver and quite a few swimmers before the day is through. It’s up to Paul and Maggie to make things right by opening an underwater pollution valve and poisoning the water–but how to do that in a lake infested with deadly piranha?
This was the second feature directed by Joe Dante. The first, 1976’s Corman pastiche HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, was funny and loveably excessive, and the light touch extends to PIRANHA. As he would in his later films, Dante utilizes frequent cuts to TV sets playing parts of vintage monster movies as an ironic commentary on the action. Dante also makes direct reference to his film’s unauthorized source in an early scene of kids playing a JAWS video game.
As for the piranha attack sequences, Dante does what he can. Piranha are small creatures that move extremely fast, meaning their exploits are difficult to effectively dramatize in a movie, particularly a low budget one (I lost count of how many times an underwater shot of a swarm of piranha passing before the camera was repeated). If you look closely, though, you’ll see some memorable shots, including one of the piranha chewing apart a woman’s breasts.
The film overall is action-packed and satisfying (if lightweight and forgettable, with an ending that really strains credulity). In other words, it delivers exactly what it promises and little else, which in this case is enough.
New World Pictures
Director: Joe Dante
Producer: Jon Davison
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cinematography: Jamie Anderson
Editing: Joe Dante, Mark Goldblatt
Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce Gordon, Barry Brown, Paul Bartel