Roger Corman’s JAWS ripoff is an enjoyable slice of exploitation, thanks to a witty script by John Sayles (LONE STAR) and clever tongue-in-cheek direction by Joe Dante (THE HOWLING), making his solo debut after teaming with Allan Arkush (ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) to make HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD two years earlier.
Alcoholic outdoorsman Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and spunky skip-tracer Maggie (Heather Menzies) try to prevent the deadly title fish from attacking a summer camp and a vacation resort. What’s unusual about the plot is that the heroes are indirectly responsible for all the bloodshed and death. When Maggie and Grogan are poking around an abandoned Army base looking for a pair of missing teenagers, they drain a tank where, unbeknownst to them, dwell mutated piranha artificially developed by army scientist Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) for use as a weapon against the Viet Cong.
Many, many movies were made in the late 1970s to jump on the JAWS bandwagon featuring killer animals striking back against humans, often with an ecological theme, but PIRANHA is certainly one of the best of them. Dante and Sayles’ masterstroke was to play the story with wry humor, allowing the eccentric supporting cast to have fun spinning the usual clichés. Using subtle gags to offset the scares helps the more extreme scenes, such as a setpiece involving children at a summer camp being victimized by the razor-toothed fishies, go down more easily.
Dante loves genre actors and populated PIRANHA with great faces like Barbara Steele (BLACK SUNDAY), Bruce Gordon (THE UNTOUCHABLES), Dick Miller (A BUCKET OF BLOOD), Keenan Wynn, Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) and Paul Bartel, and balanced them with interesting and attractive young actors like Barry Brown (DAISY MILLER), Belinda Balaski (BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW), and Melody Scott Thomas, who went on to decades of starring in THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.
Believe it or not, Peter Fonda was the original choice for Grogan, though Dillman carries the leading role just fine, and Eric Braeden (COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT) actually shot some scenes in McCarthy’s role. Both actors dropped out, however, when they feared the special effects would look silly. Though you’d never mistake the effects for top-notch, they actually look pretty good. Some of Hollywood’s best effects artists, such as Phil Tippett (JURASSIC PARK), Rob Bottin (THE THING), and Chris Walas (THE FLY), worked on PIRANHA very early in their careers, and, aided by sharp cutting by editor Mark Goldblatt (THE TERMINATOR), turned out effective scary, gory stuff. Pino Donaggio (DRESSED TO KILL) composed and recorded the surprisingly lush score in Italy.
PIRANHA was a huge success. It was, up to that time, New World Pictures’ most profitable film, grossing more than $30 million worldwide and spawning a 1981 sequel (James Cameron’s directorial debut!), a 1995 remake with William Katt and Alexandra Paul in the Dillman and Menzies roles, and a bloody 2010 remake in 3D! Shout Factory gave Dante’s film a shiny DVD and Blu-ray release as part of its Roger Corman Cult Classics line, porting over the extras (including Dante’s commentary track with producer Jon Davison) from an earlier DVD and adding a few more, such as a new making-of documentary featuring Dante, Miller, Balaski, and others to talk about the film. Shout Factory also gave the print a nice touch-up and released it in letterbox form for the first time on home video. PIRANHA is one of New World’s finest productions and deserves a look by horror fans.