Piranha (1978)

PiranhaOf all the films released in the 1970s that retrospectively raged against the Vietnam War (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver), perhaps the least likely was Piranha.

Made for buttons (well, $770,000) over 30 days, its B-horror status didn’t stop it taking a swipe at that conflict.

That it did so by serving up fishy Brazilian carnivores, bred as finny weapons to infiltrate Vietnamese waters, is merely par for the course in a Roger Corman production.

In director Joe Dante’s own words, Piranha is a “semi-political, semi-spoof science-fiction movie”. In reality it’s a schlocky, low-budget cash-in greenlit to surf the Jaws wave. Exhibit A: the opening scare, in which a pair of backpackers take a midnight dip, only to be dragged under the reddening surface.

Exhibit B: a nutty team of hunters in bumbling insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) and booze-loving Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who attempt to prevent a voracious school of piranhas from chowing down on summer camp kiddies and theme park revellers.

If Jaws was a rounded paternal drama dressed up as a monster movie, Piranha is pure, galumphing beast. Menzies and Dillman make a fun double act but most impressive is just how far Dante pushes that horror handle. Though the gore is mostly limited to foaming red water, Dante’s fishy fiends chomp on anyone and everyone (including the nippers).

The newbie director also pinched a few tricks from Spielberg’s film, namely the palpable tension whenever anybody dunks a toe in something wet. And there are glimmers of that distinctive Dante humour throughout: “What about the goddamn piranhas?” yells theme park owner Dick Miller. “They’re eating the guests, sir,” comes the reply.

Cheap-looking and predictable, Piranha’s premise remains irresistible. How else do you explain two remakes (one of them made for TV) in 30 years? Alexandre Aja’s 2010 reboot upped the camp, meaning Dante’s film feels quainter, its humour gentler.

It’s anything but dead in the water though. That chewy Vietnam subtext keeps things swimming, while at the film’s ominous close the corrupt Dr Mengers (Barbara Steele) attempts to reassure us “there’s nothing left to fear”.

Not until James Cameron’s angst-ridden Piranha II took flight, that is… 3/5

Via Total Film