Piranha (1978)
Piranha (1978)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.

Release Date: August 3rd, 1978 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Joe Dante Actors: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas




wo backpackers break into a restricted, no trespassing area just to explore and to wash off in a water reservoir – unconcerned about its purpose or what might be in it. Just as soon as the young woman can strip off her clothes and push her male companion into the pond, the two are rapidly and bloodily torn apart by underwater unknowns. Although the place has supposedly been abandoned for several years, an elderly man, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), may have some answers.

Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) works for a skip-tracing company that searches for missing people, and she’s hot on the trail of the two vanished teens. She calls upon Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), a reluctant native (and the voice of nagging reason), who can guide her to the army test site where the travelers might have stayed. They’re ambushed by the delirious scientist Hoak, who warns about the “razorteeth,” their accelerated breeding, and possible escape into open waters, before he’s knocked out by Maggie. When he comes to, he admits that killer, mutant, intelligent piranhas are on the loose; and Paul realizes that the dam is routinely opened up to keep water levels steady, down by the Lost River Lake Resort where a summer camp for kids is in full swing (his daughter being a member).

One of the characters mentions the “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” a clip of “The Monster that Challenged the World” plays on a television, and other background roles play the “Jaws” arcade game. It’s quite evident producer Roger Corman and director Joe Dante wanted to make their own version of Spielberg’s highly successful 1975 monster movie, and they’re not afraid to alternate between paying tribute, parodying, and straight copying. There’s an unmistakable jokiness surrounding the action, partly attributed to bad acting, but mostly because the dialogue is generic, the characters are poorly developed, and there’s a conspicuous lack of suspense. It also doesn’t help that the music resembles a cheesy derivative of John Williams’ “Jaws” theme – during its good moments. The particularly bad musical interludes include ridiculous patriotic tunes, mournful death riffs, and peaceful, desperately meaningful father/son or camp counselor/student melodies as those interactions flounder.

The actual attack sequences are fairly convincing, using rapid cuts, panicked thrashing, inserts of toothy fish picking at flesh, lots of blood, and frenzied sound effects. In contrast, the shots of children happily splashing in the lake, an army cover-up routine, and an egotistical fish geneticist Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele), who can’t seem to control her supernaturally possessed eyebrows, are entirely laughable. The gratuitous nudity (in one scene, the piranhas eat the bikini off a victim first) also edges “Piranha” into the realm of exploitive, can’t-take-it-seriously, extreme B-movie fare. Hats off to the filmmakers, however, for daring to have a piranha jump out of the water to bite a man’s face, for disguising the use of large rubber fish through crafty editing, and for allowing innocent young children to perish in a pool of blood.

Corman would go on to reuse the basic Piranha plot for 1980’s “Humanoids from the Deep,” while James Cameron would take over the series and direct the sequel (“Piranha II: The Spawning”). A 1995 TV remake (penned by John Sayles) would follow, along with 2010’s “Piranha 3D,” which took the bloodthirsty critter idea to all new heights of gore and graphic nakedness (expanding upon the spring break partier fodder). And the concept of deadly aquatic carnivores receiving an even larger dose of ludicrous wit wasn’t lost on “Mega Piranha” (2010) or “Piranha Sharks” (2014).

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10