“What about the goddamn piranhas?”
“They’re eating the guests, sir.”
I think this exchange best sums up the attitude of Joe Dante’s Piranha. It’s definitely a tongue in cheek approach to the nature gone awry film. Recently Shout Factory re-released the 1978 B-movie classic on DVD, bringing consumers a re-mastered version of the film along with a great deal of extras, including interviews with director Dante, producer Roger Corman, and a bunch of others. I’m not certain whether Piranha really deserves a “Special Edition,” but it’s a great ‘70s low-budget romp, trying to ride the coattails of Jaws.
Maggie (Heather Menzies) is an absent-minded private detective hunting for two lost youths killed in the film’s opening scene. She meets up with Grogan (Bradford Dillman), a local drunk that spends most of his time at his mountain cabin drinking copious amounts of straight liquor. Enlisting him to help, Maggie ends up at a former military research center that’s home to a crazy geneticist (Kevin McCarthy, who passed away yesterday at the age of 96) and a large batch of mutated piranhas bred to kill the Viet Cong. The war is over and the experiments officially stopped, but McCarthy hasn’t given up. Maggie, being a bit of a dunce at times, accidentally lets the piranhas out and all hell breaks loose. Eventually the fish make their way to a local summer camp and a recently opened resort, munching on kids and adult without discrimination.
What’s great about Piranha, aside from being a highly entertaining, low-budget creature flick, is its anti-establishment sentiment. Aside from the film questioning the American military’s scientific experiments, it also discusses the cozy relationship between government and private industry. The owner of the new resort (Dick Miller) is well aware of the military experiments on the mountain and in cooperation with Colonel Waxman, the official in charge of the piranha clean-up/cover-up, the two brokered a deal to shut down the experiments and turn the area into a resort town – all for profit of course. While Dante and Corman were probably not interested in instigating any debates, their ideology shines through. This is common in B-movies, especially of this era: films like Motel Hell raise issues surrounding America’s food industry; Dawn of the Dead is a stab at consumerism; Maniac explores the mind of a Vietnam veteran, much like The Deer Hunter except with a disgusting twist meant to shock and not enlighten. Even the old science fiction and horror flicks of the 1950s were sometimes distrustful of our government, with murderous creatures bred by atomic testing or scientific experimentation. A good example of this anti-establishment sentiment in modern B-movie culture is Robert Rodriguez’s contribution to Grind House, Planet Terror.
Piranha’s gore is what should be expected from a Roger Corman produced film – cheap, yet humorous. Fountains of blood rise out of the water when it’s feeding time, rubber heads display the aftermath of a violent feast, and cheap latex is used for other moments of violence. Ultimately, it’s not supposed to be serious. The acting is serious, but the situations and plot aren’t, which makes me think of David and Jerry Zucker’s slapstick classic Airplane! Piranha isn’t a slapstick comedy, but as I said before, the film is definitely tongue-in-cheek. There are many genuinely funny moments, with the actions of the characters and the dialogue reflecting this. The film also features Dick Miller, who is a B-movie favorite (Chopping Mall, Demon Knight, etc.) in addition to the mediocre cast mentioned earlier.
The DVD features a long line of extra features, including a 30 minute documentary about the making of Piranha. This is an interesting watch because it shows what goes into a Corman produced film. His movies are made fast and cheap, which is why many who started their careers with Corman always praise him for teaching him a variety of useful tricks implemented later in their careers. Joe Dante went on to later direct The Howling and Gremlins and other Corman alumni like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda brought us Easy Rider. In addition to this excellent documentary are deleted scenes that were edited in when the film was televised, trailers (radio, theatrical, and television), audio commentary, and more. The transfer is spectacular, cutting all the blemishes out of the original print, which appeared on the old VHS copies, yet the visual aesthetics that are synonymous with ‘70s film (have you ever noticed that films from this decade have a distinguishable visual quality that hasn’t been replicated) are still there.
If you’re looking for a good time with a mediocre, yet highly enjoyable ‘70s B-movie, Piranha might be what you’re looking for. It has blood, nudity, and killer fish – what else would a lover of subpar films need?
Oh yeah, there’s also an explosion.
Here’s the trailer.