Piranha (1978 film)

Piranha is a 1978 American 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, threatening the lives of the local inhabitants and the visitors to a nearby summer resort.

Theatrical release poster by John Solie
Directed byJoe Dante
Screenplay byJohn Sayles
Story byRichard Robinson
John Sayles
Produced byJon Davison
StarringBradford Dillman
Heather Menzies
Kevin McCarthy
Keenan Wynn
Barbara Steele
Dick Miller
Belinda Balaski
CinematographyJamie Anderson
Edited byJoe Dante
Mark Goldblatt
Music byPino Donaggio
Piranha Productions
Distributed byNew World Pictures (U.S.)
United Artists (international)
Release date
  • August 3, 1978 (1978-08-03)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$770,000[1] or $600,000[2]
Box office$16 million

Produced by Roger Corman, Piranha is the first of a series of low-budget B movies inspired by the film Jaws (1975), which had been a major success for Universal Pictures and director Steven Spielberg. Initially, Universal Pictures 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 became a cult film. Piranha was followed by a sequel, Piranha II: The Spawning (1982), 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 piranha. 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 piranha 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 Betsy, one of the camp counselors. Despite her fear of water, Suzie uses a raft to rescue Laura, another camp counselor.

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 theorizes 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 piranha. They arrive at the plant ahead of the piranha, 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 the beach.


The screenwriter John Sayles appears in a cameo as a sentry.




The film was released theatrically in the United States by New World Pictures in August 1978.[citation needed] Given the proximity to Jaws 2, Universal Pictures had considered an injunction, but Spielberg convinced them otherwise.[3]

Home mediaEdit

In 2004, New Concorde Home Entertainment released the film on special edition DVD.[4]

In 2010, as a tie-in to the release of the remake, Shout! Factory re-released Piranha on DVD and Blu-ray.[5]

On March 13, 2015, the film screened in a R-rated Ultimate Edition presented by Fangoria magazine and special guests Rebekah McKendry, curator Mike Williamson and actress Belinda Balaski.[6]


Critical responseEdit

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."[7] 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."[8] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film one-half star out of four, particularly objecting to the use of women and children as frequent targets of the attacks.[9] 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."[10] 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."[11]

The film later acquired a cult status. It currently has a 69% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 26 reviews, with an average rating of 6.42 out of 10. The site's critics consensus reads, "Performed with a wink and directed with wry self-awareness, Piranha is an unabashed B-movie with satirical bite."[12]

Steven Spielberg called the film "the best of the Jaws ripoffs".[3]


Piranha was first remade in 1995; this version was also produced by Roger Corman and originally debuted on Showtime. It used footage from the original film 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."[13] 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, and look forward to working with Greg Levasseur to write, produce, and direct such a fun and gory thrill ride."[14] The film's cast includes Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfuss, Adam Scott and Jerry O'Connell.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Christopher T Koetting, Mind Warp!: The Fantastic True Story of Roger Corman's New World Pictures, Hemlock Books. 2009 p 146-147
  2. ^ Chute, David (1984). "Dante's Inferno". Film Comment. New York. 20 (3): 22–27, 80. ProQuest 210263969.
  3. ^ a b McBride, Joseph (1999). Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press. p. 257. ISBN 0-306-80900-1.
  4. ^ "Piranha: The Directors' Series". dvdempire.com. Retrieved 2011-03-31.
  5. ^ Barton, Steve (May 26, 2010). "Shout! Factory Dishes the Dirt on Piranha and Humanoids from the Deep Special Edition Blu-ray Releases". Dread Central. Archived from the original on May 30, 2010. Retrieved December 10, 2010.
  6. ^ "L.A.: FANGO & Secret Sixteen Present One-Night-Only Screening of "PIRANHA: THE ULTIMATE EDITION"". Fangoria. May 26, 2010. Retrieved December 10, 2010.
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (2000). I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing. ISBN 9780740792489.
  8. ^ "Piranha". Variety: 20. August 9, 1978.
  9. ^ Siskel, Gene (August 31, 1978). "Two films satisfy public's appetite for the tasteless". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 6.
  10. ^ Forbes, Jill (November 1978). "Piranha". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 45 (#538): 224.
  11. ^ Bilbow, Marjorie (November 4, 1978). "The New Films". Screen International: 21.
  12. ^ "Piranha (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved December 10, 2010.
  13. ^ McClintock, Pamela (March 15, 2007). "Aja bites into 'Piranha'". Variety. Penske Business Media, LLC. Retrieved August 28, 2009.
  14. ^ "Piranha, Escape From NY remake updates". Fangoria.com. Starlog Group, Inc. Archived from the original on February 17, 2008. Retrieved September 9, 2007.

External linksEdit