With Piranha 3D in theaters now, I thought it might be fun to revisit an old favorite from 1978. Movies like Piranha happened in the good old days of drive-in theaters, when a producer like Roger Corman knew that his low-budget exploitation flicks would always find an audience.
The thing is, the talent pool he drew from back then is a very impressive list nowadays, including Ron Howard (1977’s Grand Theft Auto), Jonathan Demme (1974’s women-in-prison opus Caged Heat), Martin Scorsese (1972’s Boxcar Bertha), Francis Ford Coppola (1963’s Dementia 13), and Joe Dante, the director of Piranha. With Allan Arkush, Dante had previously codirected Hollywood Boulevard (1976) for Corman, but Piranha was his first solo directorial effort.
I must admit a particular affinity for Dante’s films, most likely due to the fact that our brains were both warped at a very young age by watching far too many Warner Bros. cartoons. I saw Gremlins (1984) no less than six times in the theater during its run, and the underrated Explorers (1985) made my Revival House list of six poorly reviewed movies that I love. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) is sharp, self-reflexive satire with a particularly funny “technical difficulties” moment, and Martin Short poking a half-sized Kevin McCarthy in the eyes cracks me up beyond reason in Innerspace (1987).
First-time screenwriter John Sayles smartly turned Piranha from a standard “animals attack” picture into a “military weapons experiment gone awry” picture by having the U.S. government spawn the mutant fish. Sayles became a frequent Corman collaborator before embarking on a very successful career as an independent filmmaker, writing and directing The Brother From Another Planet (1984), Eight Men Out (1988), and The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), among others. If you’d like to hear a great DVD commentary track, check out Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), with Sayles and Corman, two old friends, just shooting the shit.
But don’t let the inclusion of a political message in Piranha fool you — there’s still plenty of people getting eaten in the film. Corman didn’t become the king of B-movie cinema by neglecting his target drive-in audience.
As is the case with many of Corman’s flicks, several other members of Piranha‘s behind-the-scenes crew went on to great success in the movie industry. Working in the makeup effects department was Rob Bottin, who later lent his talents to Total Recall (1990), The Thing (1982), and another cool Dante-Sayles collaboration, The Howling (1981). And the piranhas themselves were created by the likes of Phil Tippett (who helped create the Imperial walkers in The Empire Strikes Back and the most badass cinematic creature of all time in Dragonslayer) and Chris Walas (Gremlins and the 1986 remake of The Fly).
Corman’s concept for casting his movies was to include several recognizable TV names, so if a film bombed in theaters it could still be sold to a network. Thus Piranha has actors like Bradford Dillman (guest appearances on Barnaby Jones and other shows), Heather Menzies (the Logan’s Run TV series), Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show), and Keenan Wynn (77 Sunset Strip and numerous films). Rounding out the cast were soon-to-be Dante regulars Kevin McCarthy, Belinda Balaski, and Dick Miller, who essentially plays the Murray Hamilton role from Jaws.
One of the elements of Piranha‘s plot involves a bunch of kids at a summer camp and whether or not our two heroes, Dillman and Menzies, will be able to warn the camp before the deadly carnivorous fish arrive. As moviegoers we’re conditioned to assume the kids will be saved in time because no filmmaker would have the gall to actually show children being eaten by piranha. No one, that is, except for Dante, Sayles, and Corman.
Piranha has often been referred to as a Jaws rip-off, and there’s no denying that if Jaws hadn’t been such a huge success, Piranha would probably never have been made. At least that’s what Universal Pictures thought — with Jaws 2 also hitting theaters in ’78, they reportedly wanted to take legal action against Corman’s New World Cinema in an attempt to prevent its film from being released.
But unlike some of the other Jaws rip-offs of the time — 1976’s Grizzly comes to mind — I’ve always felt that Piranha holds its own. There are some genuinely suspenseful moments in the film, and also some impressive editing during the climactic attack on the resort. Evidently I wasn’t the only one who felt this way — as the story goes, Jaws director Steven Spielberg saw Piranha, liked it, and asked Universal’s lawyers to back off. Besides, the movie actually opens with Menzies playing a Jaws arcade game. I mean, it’s not like they’re trying to hide it or anything!
I find it interesting that Spielberg enjoyed a producing relationship in the ’80s with two filmmakers known for ripping off his movies: Robert Zemeckis (Spielberg is credited as an executive producer on Used Cars, the Back to the Future films, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), whose Romancing the Stone (1984) was inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Dante (the Gremlins films and Innerspace were all shepherded by Spielberg). I guess the lesson here — and I’m sure Corman would agree — is that if you’re going to make a rip-off, make it a good one!
I’ll leave you with a quote from Dante’s commentary track on the Piranha DVD, which he says a few minutes into the final attack sequence, after about a dozen or so horribly bitten bodies have been dragged out of the water: “I guess this must have been considered a little much by people (laughs) … now that I look at it.”
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