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Film Review: Piranha (1978)

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Two self-righteous idiots accidentally release a genetically-altered species of piranha into a stream. From there, both the piranha and the idiots slowly make their way downstream to various swimming holes and resorts, each in their own way wreaking havoc


Written by: John Sayles and Richard Robinson
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn

A couple of nosy hippie backpackers on a mountain hike stumble across what appears to be a deserted Army base, break in, and decide to go for a late night swim – bad idea in a horror movie, as of course something unseen uses them for a midnight snack. From there we move to the novice investigator hired by the missing (hippie) girl’s parents to find her. Once she comes across a lonely, alcoholic, antisocial mountain man and makes him her guide, they trek up the mountain and find said “deserted” Army base.

They drain the swimming pond to look for bodies, but find only bones. And guess what they released into the local river when they drained the little pond? Oh yeah, baby – hundreds, maybe thousands, of tough-as-nails genetically altered and bred-for-war piranhas. Oh, and they’re flippin HUNGRY. Now it’s a race against time (and fish) downriver to stop the deadly school of toothed mutants before they reach a kids’ summer camp and waterfront amusement park. So, what did YOU do this summer??

As a young child near Long Beach, CA, and having been taught by my Dad how to swim right there in the Pacific, when we moved to Kansas when I was 5, I was untouchable and unbreakable. Nothing scared me, especially a land-locked state with nothing but lakes, ponds, and swimming pools. Then later that year, I watched JAWS on the big screen. Fucking sharks, man. I don’t think that I’ve done more than walk along the beach barefoot in the sand since then on all my treks back to my home state. Gone was the desire to ever get on any boat or ship (other than the Queen Mary, but they had awesome food there and we all know that damn thing is haunted as hell!). And even POINT BREAK couldn’t rekindle that long-dormant desire I once had in me to learn to surf. Fucking sharks, man…

But it was really more than that – while still to this day I don’t really consider JAWS a horror movie (really…at best, it’s very suspenseful, but not horror) – it had a profound effect on me when it came to swimming in the ocean – any ocean. I was fine in lakes and rivers here in good old Middle America, having missed most of the “nature gone amok” flicks of the 70s that tried their best to cash in on the success of Bruce the Shark, my eyes were closed to the horrors that could be awaiting me in any given river or forest. That is, until the invention of cable access channels and later on, HBO.

So it wasn’t until the mid-80s that I actually got to watch, and totally fall in love with, the original 1978 (and by far my favorite JAWS cash-in) PIRANHA. And that was just fine with me, as by my teens when I finally saw it I was old enough and smart enough (although some still argue that point) to actually understand director Dante’s biting social commentary on military arrogance and less-than-subtle swipes at commercialism, as well as the very dark humor laced throughout the flick.

Virtually every genre/exploitation vet from the 70s made appearances in this movie, from Paul Bartel to Keenan Wynn to Barbara Steele to of course my favorite whacko of all time – the one and only Kevin McCarthy – and they were all fantastic. The main leads brought their A-Team-Game as well and never disappointed me on any level. This was, for a Roger Corman-produced movie, truly the equivalent of Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant putting on hair and makeup and doing a werewolf flick…it was awesome all the way around.

As I write this review with only a couple of days left before the remake hits theaters near me in glorious 3-D, I can’t help but wonder if it will even come close to commenting on the times like the original did? I love Alexandre Aja as a filmmaker, and he did prove that he can be true to the original while also improving on it as well with his HILLS HAVE EYES remake from a few years back, but still…I just don’t know. I guess I’ll find out this weekend when I buy my ticket if he can bring something new to the table other than updated and kickass special FX.

Anyhoo, take it from me, young and old alike out there – the original 1978 PIRANHA is a very smart, satirical, sometimes downright hilarious and yes, even suspenseful movie from an age of filmmaking that is long gone these days. It was released on DVD and Blu-Ray just a couple of weeks ago and if you’re a fan of mutant nature flicks from that era or even just want to compare it to the remake after you watch that, it deserves to be in your collection. You can bet your ass it’s in mine now!

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