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Retro Review: Joe Dante’s 1978 Cult Classic ‘Piranha’

Fresh off the success of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster ‘Jaws,’ many producers rushed low budget rip-offs to theaters in order to capitalize off the now famous ocean horror story.  It was this atmosphere that created some of film’s less than finer moments.  Audiences were pounded over the head with such fine cinema as ‘Mako: The Jaws of Death’ and, how can any of us forget, ‘Orca,’ the tale of a killer whale hell bent on revenging its deceased mate and unborn offspring.  It wasn’t until 1978 that audiences were given a film about killer fish that would carve its own niche and prove to have staying power.

‘Piranha’ began its journey to the big screen in the minds of Richard Robinson and John Sayle, but was ultimately brought to life by the legendary Roger Corman and then up and coming director Joe Dante.  That’s right, the guy who directed ‘The Howling’ and ‘Gremlins’ brought life to those pesky little piranhas that lead to so much onscreen carnage.  ‘Piranha’ represents the pinnacle of what exploitation and B cinema was all about in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  The movie is violent and gory at times, but also maintains a campy atmosphere and never takes itself too seriously.
The film begins with a clear homage to ‘Jaws,’ as two swimmers meet their untimely fates at the biting teeth of the titular killer fish.  Of course, this doesn’t take place in the ocean, that would be a blatant rip off.  These kids die in what seems to be a harmless pool inside a mountainside military installation.
We are then introduced to the characters of Maggie, who is searching for the missing kids, and Paul, the local town alcoholic.  Maggie ends up acquiring the reluctant help of Paul and the two eventually make their way to the upstream military installation.  Our two heroes find evidence that the missing teenagers had been there and Maggie ends up draining the pool in order to discover any remains.  Mid-way through the draining, Maggie and Paul are attacked by a crazy scientist.  The scientist, portrayed brilliantly by Kevin McCarthy, is dead set on stopping the draining of the pool and not “letting them out.”  Now you can probably guess what was let out and what is to ensue downstream, especially at a summer camp where Paul’s daughter is unfortunately located and at the grand opening of a water park.  In case you couldn’t guess, people die and they die viciously.
Thanks to the brilliant minds over at Shout! Factory, fans and newcomers to the world of ‘Piranha’ are treated to the best possible transfer of the film to date.  The image throughout the film is relatively crisp and every bit of gore and bloody goodness pops off the screen due to spectacular color.  It is important to note that this is a review of the DVD version and that the film is also available on Blu-Ray.  There is no doubt that the transfer of the film on Blu-Ray is phenomenal.  The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), which is a huge improvement over the previous releases that were all full frame.  The audio specs are nowhere to be found on the packaging of the film and online, but the film sounds good considering the source material.
The special features and packaging of the disc are something special and Shout! Factory should be given credit for putting so much effort into a film that is relatively unknown to most modern audiences.  If we could only get special features like these on some of the newer films Hollywood is spitting out nowadays …  The packaging alone is worth the price.  It features a reversible cover, with two different versions of the old movie posters for the film.  There is also a small booklet inside with a note from Roger Corman.  The disc features a commentary track with director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison.  It’s unfortunate that Corman isn’t featured on the track, but Joe Dante is entertaining and gives the viewer plenty of inside knowledge about the film.
Next up on the extras front is 10 minutes of behind the scenes footage, which consists of handheld video captured when cameras were not rolling on set.  The pot of gold at the end of ‘Piranha’s’ special features rainbow is a new “Making of Piranha” featurette, featuring mostly interviews with members of the cast and their memories of being a part of the film.  The viewer is treated to interviews with Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, as well as others.  Rounding out the special features are a blooper reel, the original trailer for the film that features commentary by producer Jon Davison, stills galleries, additional scenes from the TV version, and radio/television spots.
This presentation of ‘Piranha’ is as good as you are going to get.  Shout! Factory has really outdone themselves this time.  If you are a fan of B-Movies and blood, this is your film.  While it may not be in 3D, ultra gory, or have loads of half naked female co-eds, it is definitely worth picking up.  Shout! Factory’s reissue of Joe Dante’s ‘Piranha’ earns a 7 out of 10.
Score: 7 out of 10