Piranha (1978)


(director: Joe Dante; screenwriters: story by John Sayles and Richard Robinson/John Sayles; cinematographer: Jamie Anderson; editors: Mark Goldblatt/Joe Dante; music: Pino Donaggio; cast: 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), Shannon Collins (Suzie Grogan), Belinda Balaski (Betsy), Richard Deacon (Earl Lyon), Bruce Gordon (Colonel Waxman), Paul Bartel (Dumont), Melody Thomas (Laura Dickinson), Barry Brown (Trooper), Janie Squire (Barbara), Roger Richman (David), Bruce Barbour (Man in Canoe); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jon Davison/Chako Van Leeuwen; New World Video; 1978)

It’s played more for laughs and digs at America’s war policy than for scares.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The usually interesting filmmaker Joe Dante (“Gremlins”/”The Howling”/”Innerspace”)directs this gleeful and campy Jaws (1975) knockoff. The executive producer is Roger Corman. The crowd-pleasing fun film became a cult classic. It’s played more for laughs and digs at America’s war policy than for scares. Be warned, there’s some gratuitous random breast shots. It’s based on a story by John Sayles and Richard Robinson, with Sayles writing the clever screenplay that takes some shots at America’s lunatic Vietnam War and at greedy civilians and at delusional scientists who sign onto doing research for the military by selling their soul.

Greenhorn private investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) tracks missing persons. The city tracker is searching in Texas for missing hikers Barbara (Janie Squire) and David (Roger Richman) in the secluded mountain area of Lost River Lake. The feisty gal sleuth, with the shiny new hillbilly jeans, gets help from reluctant local grumpy slacker boozer Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who is still haunted by his divorce and that his daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins) lives with mom. The search takes them to a closed secret army test-site, where they discover the missing teen’s backpacks by the pool where the love birds went skinny-dipping for the last time in their life. Thinking their undiscovered bodies might be in the murky pond on the base, Maggie drains it without thinking. Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) suddenly appears to stop her, but gets knocked dizzy as she hits him over the head with a blunt object. When the unhinged scientist comes to, he tells her she did bad–that he’s a scientist who illegally stayed on after the plug was pulled on the covert “Operation Razorteeth,”where he developed genetically mutant piranhas for biological warfare to destroy the North Vietnam water systems so its food supply would be cut off and thereby America could win the war.Unfortunately for mad scientist Hoak, the war’s end terminated the project before he could finish his experiments converting the killer fish to live in both salt and fresh water.

The release from the pond of the man-eating piranha downstream causes a major bloodbath, as old-timer Jack (Keenan Wynn) gets eaten, a fisherman (Bruce Barbour) in a canoe with his son becomes chum, campers (where Grogan’s daughter attends) are eaten en masse while paddling around in inner tubes in the infested water and the new posh resort finds most of its well-heeled guests becoming food for the killer fish.

In amusing supporting roles Dick Miller plays the greedy cowboy garbed slimeball chiseling owner of the posh new resort, Belinda Balaski as the nice camp counselor who nevertheless becomes chum, the iconic Bava starlet Barbara Steele sinks her teeth into being the frosty government scientist who has no problem lying for the military and pronouncing the titular fish as “piraneeya,” Bruce Gordon as the oily colonel who is more interested in covering the operation up than in saving lives, and the zany disciplinarian head counselor played by Paul Bartel who assuredly tells the scared campers “People eat fish, fish don’t eat people.”

It’s loaded with in-jokes, exploitative shock scenes and a high body count of stiffs covered with red dye. I enjoyed it more than I did Jaws, as it has fresher dialogue and luckily we only get blurred looks at the low-tech genetically created piranha because they just weren’t designed that great.

In this pic, the scientists refuse to take responsibility for creating the killers; the military is only interested to cover up from the public their responsibility in the mess and are not concerned that their actions cost innocent lives; while the wormy politicians who created the situation, walk away scott free to work their evil again on other generations. Not that many fun-loving campy horror pics about killer fish leave you with that much chum to fish with.