Piranha (1978)

Joe Dante

Bradford Dillman - Paul Grogan
Heather Menzies - Maggie McKeown
Kevin McCarthy - Dr. Robert Hoak

Keenan Wynn - Jack

Dick Miller - Buck Gardner

Barbara Steele - Dr. Florence Mengers

Genre - Horror/B-Movie/Cult/Killer Animals

Running Time - 94 Minutes

In 1975, Steven Spielberg helped create the first summer blockbuster in the form of JAWS, a movie that put the fear of sharks in the ocean in people for years to come. The film was so successful and so popular that many other filmmakers decided to use it as a template for their own "killer sea animals" movies. We had ORCA and TINTORERA in 1977. We had GREAT WHITE in 1982. We have all those silly SyFy Channel films that are made by The Asylum dealing with deadly sea creatures. Even JAWS had its share of inferior sequels, including one in 3-D.

Speaking of 3-D, the second remake [the first being in 1995] to the particular film I've reviewing here today is happening to get the [what used to be special] treatment this weekend. And that film is considered the best of the JAW rip-offs: PIRANHA. Even after 32 years, this Roger Corman produced B-movie still has its bite.

Two horny teenagers decide to take their date to a locked down, abandoned military compound that happens to hold a big pool. Feeling the need to skinny dip inside of it, the two lovers jump right in and start having fun. That is, until something in the water begins to eat the two alive from bottom to top.

The missing teenagers catch the attention of ditzy insurance investigator named Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), who goes down to Lost River Lake to find them. She hires a local backwoods alcoholic, Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), as her guide. They both come across the abandoned compound, which is harboring a secret government lab that's full of weird, mutated creatures. Sensing that the answers to her problems are inside the pool, Maggie decides to drain it to see if any bodies turn up. The scientist conducting the experiments, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), tries to stop Maggie, but it's too late. She has unwittingly unleashed a swarm of mutated, killer piranha into Lost River, which will eventually lead into the ocean. As victims begin to pile up due to this act of ill judgment, Maggie and Paul try to stop the piranha invasion from spreading by warning others. Well, that is if the military [who wants to keep this mess hush-hush] will let them.

It has been over twenty years since I had seen PIRANHA. I had forgotten all about this film until news of a Alexandre Aja directed and produced remake would be released this summer in 3-D. I remembered liking PIRANHA a lot as a child, so it was an interesting watch as an adult to see how well it holds up. I can honestly say that the film isn't all that dated at all and is actually still quite the blast that it was years ago.

The story for PIRANHA is pretty much your standard 50s B-Movie gimmick: mutated creature(s) is/are unleashed into the world, destroying whatever is in their way. It never goes much deeper than that, and that's absolutely fine. In fact, PIRANHA is a pretty smart film on the surface. It never hides what it is: a cheesy imitation of a better film - in this case, JAWS. We even have a scene at the beginning where Maggie is playing a JAWS arcade game. We also have a reference to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD plays on TV at some point. And a person at the beach is reading "Moby Dick". These little things add charm to this film. It's guilty of its imitation and makes fun of it. When even Steven Spielberg loves your film, you know you did something right.

Also for a B-Movie, it has a lot of things going on to keep one entertained. We have the very weird coupling of Maggie and Paul. Maggie is a bit of a slut, but is somewhat proud of her sexual power over men [although she doesn't really have any]. Paul is an alcoholic who seems scared to get close to Maggie, but is also concerned about her safety, as well as the safety of his aquaphobic daughter [who is at a camp by the lake]. We're never really sure what type of relationship these two have or will end up having. But they have an interesting chemistry with each other and are fun to watch together.

There's also moments at the campsite, where Paul's daughter is scared to go into the lake because of sea monsters. The two female counselors try to help her get out of having to swim in the lake [for some sort of Water Badge], but the asshole chief counselor doesn't care about her fear and pressures her into swimming. Unfortunately, this leads to a whole bunch of kids getting maimed in probably the film's most tense moment.

We also have scenes where a father is murdered by the piranha, leaving his son traumatized as he's saved by Paul, Meggie, and Dr. Hoak [who plays against type as he's not a mad scientist, but a man forced to do these experiments by the military]. We have scenes where the military, acting like they want to help the area, decide to silence Paul and Maggie to keep their mess quiet. And then there's the climax, where the beach resort is attacked by hungry piranha. For a B-movie, there's a lot going on that keeps you on your toes the entire time.

The dialogue in this film is absolutely hilarious. I thought Maggie's "seduction" on Paul was funny as hell, since she gave him hints he didn't see. Also Paul's answer as to why he stopped smoking [because it would interfere with his drinking] is pretty clever. There is a lot more dialogue I could quote, but this review is probably too long as it is. But it's very self-aware of itself and the film's silly situation, making PIRANHA a fun 94 minutes.

There are flaws in the narrative. The child whose father was murdered disappears as soon as he appears. What ever happened to him? And who's taking care of Jack's dog after he's killed by the piranha? I'm surprised Paul and Maggie didn't take the dog with them. Also, I wish the beach resort scene had taken place before the camp scene. While the resort scene is the moment where the piranha really go crazy on the citizens and leads to the film's "resolution", it's not as tense as the camp scene before it. I mean, seeing adults get mauled isn't all that pleasant to watch. But seeing helpless, innocent children getting mauled by piranha is just more downbeat and messed up. If the children had been hurt AFTER the adults, the film may have been more tense. But you can't top children getting chewed up like that. Anything after that is pretty downhill after that point.

The SFX by Jon Berg, Phil Tippett, Vincent Prentice, and Rob Bottin are standard B-Movie cheese. We hardly see the piranha in the film until the end. They look like puppets really with their teeth chomping down on human flesh. But it's a low budget B-flick, so they don't look all that bad really. The make up by Bottin is pretty good, although his work on THE HOWLING, ROBOCOP, and THE THING would be much better [due to bigger budgets]. I do have a question about that stop-motion puppet creature during the investigation of the science lab sequence. Was there a point to it? It was just weird. I guess it was to show the type of experiments in that lab, but I wish it had been pushed further.

The direction by Joe Dante is quite good here. I think if he couldn't really show the fake piranha [for obvious reasons], giving them their own P.O.V. shots was the right move. Seeing their view of the attacks was quite effective and definitely reminded me of what Spielberg did in JAWS. I thought the story structure and how it was paced was well done. There are a few lull moments, but nothing that takes you out of the film all that much. Plus there was some nice tension and suspense during the last two attack sequences. It's not a scary film, but it doesn't really try to be. Joe Dante would do finer works later on [THE HOWLING and GREMLINS], but his work on PIRANHA is no slouch.

The acting is also very good. Bradford Dillman plays the straight man/serious guy well. He has a bumbling quality about him, making him fun to watch. Plus he had a great beard. Heather Menzies was also good as the ditzy Maggie. She was cute and very animated. I thought she and Dillman had some interesting chemistry with each other. We also get appearances by Dick Miller [who has appeared in most, if not all, of Joe Dante's films], cult director Paul Bartel, Kevin McCarthy, and the iconic Barbara Steele. For a B-Movie, PIRANHA has a solid cast.


- A couple ignored a "No Trespassing" sign, only getting them in trouble with piranha. Signs are there for a reason. Things like "Stop", "School Crossing", and that "Exit Only" tattoo over my ass are for safety purposes. Common sense, people!

- Maggie was playing a JAWS arcade game. Judging by the gameplay, it bites.

- Paul was frying a fish in the kitchen. I guess beans were burning on the grill. I mean, it takes a whole lotta tryin' to just get up that hill!

- There was a weird looking lizard creature walking around the lab. It probably just wants
attention. When people don't pet the lizard every once in a while, it can get quite hard to move on with the rest of the day.

- Don't stick your feet into the river. They might get eaten by piranha. Or this could happen...

- Barbara Steele is one of the members of the government, in charge of the secret laboratory and its experiments. Killer piranha? Military getting involved to cover this mess up? An asshole camp counselor? Yep, this is a BLACK SUNDAY indeed!

- "Sometimes you have to destroy in order to save." Sounds like the story of my reviewing life for the past four years...

- Someone dragged a chewed up victim through a wall structured sand castle. How unfortunate. Do you have any idea how long it took to make that sculpture?? The nerve of some people!

PIRANHA is an entertaining "animals run amok" B-Movie - nothing more, nothing less. It's not a perfect viewing experience and not everyone will enjoy it [if they haven't seen it already]. But for me, it's a fun watch where you sort of leave your brain at the door and enjoy fish getting their revenge on seafood loving humans. I look forward to the upcoming remake to this. It looks like it'll keep the same silly, campy tone. And that's more than fine with me. JAWS is the better film, but PIRANHA makes for a suitable substitute.

3 Howls Outta 4


  1. When you said you were reviewing Piranha, I thrilled. I absolutely love this film! It isn't perfect, but it's not meant to be, it pure B movie fun it embraces that fact wholeheartedly. Even the fact that they gave the piranhas their own "noise" when they attack, well, that's like hearing the Jaws theme everytime the shark is around. I agree that the camp scene is way more tense than the attack on the citizens. Anytime kids are involved in a horror movie, it adds to my sense of dread for them. Kids in horror movies can figuratively or literally convey a loss of innocence.
    On to that little critter. I love stop motion animation. I love it, can't get enough of it, from Sinbad to Jack & Sally, it is an art of patience, skill, and creativity. In this case, I wanted to know more about that little guy, I wanted to see more of him, he has intrigued me for years. I wish he had been used in the story, but, he walked off the screen and into oblivion...I think he works at Radio Shack these days.
    How can you go wrong with having the one, the only, the gorgeous, Barbara Steele in your film!! She is one of the all time great Scream Queens. I can't wait to see her upcoming film, The Butterfly Room.
    Great review!
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

  2. Saw this very recently too for the time since I was a kid and had pretty much the same reaction. One bit I loved was Bartel's character: the asshole camp counselor you just KNOW is gonna die... and then he steps right the fuck up to help rescue the kids when the piranha attack. Great way to go against horror-flick expectation. The screenplay by indie filmmaker extraordinaire John Sayles--hell, he helped *invent* American indie cinema--is another reason why this film remains so strong.

  3. After watching it again I have to say it's still holds up very well, one of the better Corman B-moves! So true about the dog and kid, just totally dissapear after they've played their part. If you keep a close eye out you'll notice the boat, the one the speed boat runs into, explodes before its actually hits. The wife really thought was hilarious!

  4. @ Pete - Yeah, PIRANHA is definitely a fun flick. And that camp scene is pretty tense. A lot of people I know are annoyed by the piranha sound, but I dig it. And Barbara Steele is great. Definitely a horror icon.

    And that critter thing still weirds me out. What was the point of that thing? It should have been explored. Cool stop-motion effect though.

    @ Will - I should have mentioned that about Bartel's character. He's definitely the kind of character you'd expect to die [hope to die is more like it], but he's made to be a reluctant hero instead. And John Sayles did do that, you're right. Dante picked a great screenwriter for PIRANHA.

    @ Daniel - I knew I had forgotten something. That boat scene is hilarious! I noticed it too and just laughed at the bad timing. But then again, that's why B-movies are so appealing - for moments like this.

  5. I love me some PIRANHA! According to Dante, the creature in the lab was supposed to have played a "bigger" role in that it would become giant sized and wreak havoc. He talks about it on the commentary. The track is the same one ported over from the previous DVD special edition release from New Horizons.

  6. I just saw this for the first time a few hours ago, actually! The dvd got a nice re-release at the video store thanks to the remake coming out! Good for me.
    Loved it! And it was so much funnier than I thought it would be... most of the humor coming from Maggie. I loved the scene where they were trying to break out of the army tent (what? It was made of cloth, they couldn't have just crawled underneath?) and the guy tells her to come on to the sentry, and she comes back with "What if he's gay?" I could not stop laughing.

  7. @Venoms5 - I should have listened to the commentary. Thank you for letting me know that was the reason for that creature!

    @TGWLH - Maggie is definitely the highlight of the film. The gay scene is very funny. And I thought her difficulty in seducing Paul was funny as well.

  8. The movie was bashed even before it was released because most people thought it was a cheesy movie with bad CGI but I loved every minute of it because it was so entertaining.


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