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Theatrical release poster by John Solie
|Directed by||Joe Dante|
|Produced by||Roger Corman|
Chako van Leeuwen
|Screenplay by||John Sayles|
|Story by||John Sayles|
|Music by||Pino Donaggio|
|Edited by||Joe Dante|
|Distributed by||New World Pictures (US)|
United Artists (international)
|Budget||$770,000 or $600,000|
|Box office||$16 million|
Piranha is a 1978 American satirical B horror film directed and co-edited by Joe Dante, and starring Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele and Dick Miller. The film tells the story of a river being infested by lethal, genetically altered piranha fish, threatening the lives of the local inhabitants and the visitors to a nearby summer resort.
Produced by Roger Corman, Piranha was one of a series of low-budget B movies inspired by the film Jaws (1975), which had been a major success for Universal Studios and director Steven Spielberg. Initially, Universal Studios had considered obtaining an injunction to prevent Piranha being released, particularly as they had released Jaws 2 the same summer, but the lawsuit was cancelled after Spielberg himself gave the film a positive comment in advance. Released on August 3, 1978, the film was a commercial success and later achieved a cult following. Piranha was followed by a sequel, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), and two remakes, one in 1995 and another in 2010, which spawned its own sequel in 2012.
Two teenagers come upon an apparently abandoned military installation at night. They take advantage of what appears to be a swimming pool to skinny dip. The teenagers are attacked by an unseen force in the pool and disappear under the water.
A determined but somewhat absent-minded skiptracer named Maggie McKeown is dispatched to find the missing teenagers near Lost River Lake. She hires surly backwoods drunkard Paul Grogan to serve as her guide. They come upon the abandoned compound, which functioned as a fish hatchery before being militarized. They discover bizarre specimens in jars and indications of an occupant. Maggie locates the drainage switch for the outside pool and decides to empty it to search the bottom, but the moment she activates it a haggard man appears and tries to stop her until he is subdued by Grogan. The two find a skeleton in the filtration trap of the empty pool, and learn it was filled with salt water. The man awakens and steals their jeep, but crashes it due to his disorientation, and is taken to Grogan's home where they spend the night. They take Grogan's raft down the river, where the man wakes up and tells them that the pool in the facility was filled with a school of lethal piranha fish, and that Maggie has released them into the river. They are skeptical until they hear a dog barking and they come across the corpse of Grogan's friend Jack, who has bled to death from an attack on a fishing dock.
The man reveals himself to be Doctor Robert Hoak, lead scientist of a defunct Vietnam War project, Operation: Razorteeth, tasked with engineering a ravenous and prodigious strain of piranha that could endure the cold water of the North Vietnamese rivers and inhibit Viet Cong movement. The project was shut down when the war ended, but some of the mutant specimens survived, and Hoak tended to them to salvage his work. Grogan realizes that if the local dam is opened, the school will have access to the Lost River water park resort, and the nearby summer camp where his daughter Suzie is in attendance. They encounter a capsized canoe with a boy whose father has been killed by the fish. Hoak rescues the boy but suffers mortal injuries when the school attacks him; he dies before he can reveal how to kill them. Blood from Hoak's corpse causes the piranha to tear away the raft's lashings, and they barely reach shore. Grogan stops the dam attendant from opening the spillway and calls the military.
A military team led by Colonel Waxman and former Razorteeth scientist Dr. Mengers feed poison into the upstream section, ignoring the protests that the fish survived the first attempt. When Grogan discovers that a tributary bypasses the dam, Waxman and Mengers quarantine them to prevent the agitated pair from alerting the media. After they escape, Waxman alerts law enforcement to capture them. The school attacks the summer camp during a swimming marathon, injuring and killing many children and a supervisor. Suzie escapes due to her fear of water, and aids her camp mates in escaping.
The school continues downriver. Waxman and Mengers arrive at the water park to intercept Grogan and Maggie, but the piranha attack the resort and kill many vacationers and Waxman. Grogan and Maggie commandeer a speedboat and rush to the shuttered smelting plant at the narrowest point of the river. Remembering the empty facility pond, Grogan realizes the fish can survive in salt water; if the school passes the delta, they will reach the ocean and spread over the world. He intends to open the smelting refuse tanks, hoping the industrial waste will kill the fish. They arrive at the plant ahead of the fish, but the elevated water level has submerged the control office, and Grogan must go underwater; he ties a rope around his waist and instructs Maggie to count to 100 before pulling him out. Grogan struggles to move the rusted valve wheel when the school arrives and attacks him. He manages to open the valves just as Maggie pulls him to safety. Maggie takes Grogan back to the water park, where a massive MEDEVAC is tending to the victims; his injuries are severe and he is seen in a catatonic state.
Mengers gives an on-site television interview, providing a sanitized version of events and downplaying the existence of piranha. Her voice is heard carrying out over a radio on the shore of a West Coast beach. As she says "there's nothing left to fear", the piranha's characteristic trilling sound drowns out the waves on a beach.
The film was released theatrically in the United States by New World Pictures in August 1978. Given the proximity to Jaws 2, Universal Pictures had considered an injunction, but Spielberg convinced them otherwise.
The film received mixed reviews at the time of its release. Roger Ebert mocked the "really bad special effects" and the "odd compulsion" of the characters "to jump into the water the very moment they discover it is infested by piranhas." Variety wrote that the film was "not without its exciting moments" and noted that the in-jokes for film buffs added "another dimension to a routine potboiler." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film half of one star out of four, particularly objecting to the use of women and children as frequent targets of the attacks. Jill Forbes of The Monthly Film Bulletin called it "a quickie from the Corman company that can't decide whether to plump for horror, science fiction or social comedy, and plays safe with something for everyone," and found it "a lot of fun." Marjorie Bilbow of Screen International wrote that the film "works as spirited scream and giggle nonsense because there is always something happening and Joe Dante directs with a slyly tongue-in-cheek awareness of the existence of big brother Jaws."
The film later acquired a cult status. Based on more recent reviews from 25 critics collected by the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film scored 72%. Steven Spielberg called the film "the best of the Jaws ripoffs".
Piranha was first remade in 1995, and this version was also produced by Roger Corman and originally debuted on Showtime. It used footage from the original for certain sequences.
Another remake of the 1978 film is directed by Alexandre Aja, who again works with filmmaking partner Grégory Levasseur; the two have worked on other genre films as well, including the 2006 remake, The Hills Have Eyes. Distributor Dimension Films' Bob Weinstein told Variety, "We will maintain the fun and thrilling aspects of the original film, but look forward to upping the ante with a modern-day twist." Piranha 3D was theatrically released in the United States on August 20, 2010 and is in 3D.
Dimension had been developing the remake of the 1978 Joe Dante film Piranha for over a year. It intended to have Chuck Russell, who previously reworked the 1988 version of The Blob, direct the film before taking on Alexandre Aja. Aja intended to rewrite a previous script from Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger. Aja explained, "My goal is not to remake Piranha, but to create a completely new adventure paying homage to all the creature films [...] I am very proud to follow the path of Joe Dante and James Cameron in the Piranha franchise and look forward to working with Greg Levasseur to write, produce, and direct such a fun and gory thrill ride." The film's cast includes Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfus, Adam Scott and Jerry O'Connell.
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