With the bloody romp Piranha 3D delivering gory campy horror to a new generation of fans, what better time to look back at one of producer Roger Corman’s Cult Classics with the Joe Dante directed Piranha. Made just three years after the underwater terror Jaws, this seemingly tongue-in-cheek 1978 film is absolutely a rip-off of Steven Spielberg’s summer shark attack hit, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without charms, oddities and great moments of its own. Hit the jump for my take on the collector’s edition re-release of this cult classic.
The film starts off in the most cliche of ways with two teenagers exploring the woods. Being the typical dumb teenagers, they ignore the foreboding fenced-in surroundings of what appears to be a swimming pool and partake in a little skinny dipping (topless and full frontal nudity in the first five minutes wasn’t entirely unexpected, but interestingly enough it’s the only nudity in the film). Little do they know this pool is a container for a dangerous experiment inside of an abandoned military installation. Brief nibbles underwater turn into a fury of unseen bites and distant screams as a silhouetted figure follows the cries for help, but is far too late to help.
Flash forward and a flighty investigator named Maggie (Heather Menzies) is looking into the disappearance of the teens from the opening scene. With the assistance of an anti-social alcoholic names Paul (Bradford Dillman) they embark on a search throughout the woods. When they discover the abandoned military building, their investigation reveals the usual strange experiments in jars of liquid, and larger-than-average fish in aquariums. What they don’t notice is a strange stop-motion animated creature sneaking around which is never seen again (and I’m still not sure why it appears to begin with). The story is set in motion when Maggie finds the drainage switch for the pool and activates it in order to search for the bodies of the teens. But the strange silhouette from the opening scene attacks until Paul is able to knock him out. Much to the chagrin of Maggie, there is indeed a skeleton at the bottom of the pool, but not that of two humans. Suddenly the mystery man is heard stealing her jeep but due to his impairment from being knocked out, he crashes. Maggie and Paul decide to take him back to his cabin in the woods until the next morning when they’ll take a raft down river to get him into town.
However this move couldn’t be any more dangerous as they discover that Maggie released a horde of bloodthirsty, genetically engineered piranha into Lost Lake River, and they’ve been altered to survive in freshwater. On this raft trip, we discover that the deadly fish are the direct result of Operation: Razorteeth, a Vietnam War project set up to engineer a strain of piranha that could be used in the cold water of the North Vietnam rivers to stop the Viet Cong. Though the project was shut down, of course some specimens survived and now they’ve been unleashed into a river that flows director into Lost River Lake where hundreds of tourists and campers (including Paul’s daughter) are situated to enjoy the fun that comes with the lake.
From here the story takes all the expected twists and turns with several hokey attack sequences utilizing a a school of piranha (apparently created on a literal shoestring budget since they all seem to be attached together like a net of Christmas lights) and their underwater sneaking and killing. All the familiar underwater shots and images of blood red water do little to inspire suspense, but certainly bring laughter. Aside from the attacks, even more silly and cliche scenes come in the form of two young camp counselors deliberating whether to skinny dip (clearly creating anticipation both for blood and nudity), a group of child campers splashing away in the lake, and the confrontation of the military with Paul and Maggie on how to stop the deadly piranha.
On the surface (no pun intended) the film seems like a poor excuse for a suspenseful horror flick, but it’s a great execution of tongue-in-cheek humor mixed with gruesome deaths and bloody waters. You don’t want to get this film expecting a Jaws copycat that will take itself just as seriously, and this certainly isn’t one of those horror films trying to scare you. It’s completely silly, but that’s the idea. While this film could easily be dismissed by the most snobby of movie-lovers, that’s exactly why it’s deemed a cult classic and hasn’t been inducted into the Criterion Collection. Of course that doesn’t mean the DVD isn’t chock full of special features.
The special features are plenty in this collector’s edition release of the film. Though some of them have been lifted from the previous DVD release (like the commentary from director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison) there’s plenty of great features for the most hardcore Piranha fans (including material that was created just for the TV broadcast version of the film). Check out the full list below:
- Audio Commentary With Director Joe Dante and Producer Jon Davison
- Behind-the-Scenes Footage
- The Making of Piranha Featurette With New Interviews From Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski and Many More
- Bloopers and Outtakes
- Piranha Trailer With Commentary by Producer Jon Davison Courtesy of Trailers From Hell
- Stills Gallery With Photos and Posters From Around the World
- Behind-the-Scenes Stills Gallery Featuring Photos From Phil Tippetts Personal Collection
- Additional Scenes From the Network Television Version
- Radio and TV Spots
- Trailers and Stills
THE FINAL WORD:
Piranha delivers a mix of horror and comedy that borders on parody and is certainly worth a look with an open-minded group of friends. There are plenty of special features for the most hardcore of Piranha and Roger Corman Cult Classic fans and collectors, not to mention a cool lenticular cover and a reversible DVD cover with two different illustrated cover art variants). At the very least this is worth a rental for some laughs (maybe while tossing back a few drinks), but for horror and film fanatics alike, this really is worth opening your wallet.