I started my Icons review of Night of the Living Dead with the following sentence: “Sometimes a horror movie is more than just a horror movie.” I then went on to argue that horror films can have an important message and even transcend the genre. But not all the better horror flicks have to be high minded. In the right hands, a horror movie can aspire to be nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek rip off of a seminal summer shark blockbuster, and still be great entertainment in the bargain. Such is the case with Roger Corman’s thievery of Jaws– errr, Joe Dante’s Piranha.
The movie starts off with two campers stopping for a midnight skinny dip in the pool area of an abandoned military research base. One look at the film’s title, and it’s not hard to guess what comes next. Enter Heather Menzies playing a private detective dispatched to find the couple. She comes across Bradford Dillman at home in his cabin and hooks him into driving her to the base. Once there, she accidentally hits a switch and releases the title characters into a river. Blood, carnage and madness ensue as the piranhas eat everyone who crosses their path. It’s up to Dillman and Menzies to stop the carnivorous fish, all the while eluding the military who put the project in motion.
If this sounds ridiculous, it’s only because it is. And nobody understands this better than Dante. If he had taken a serious tack with this, he’d have ended up with something as laughably bad as Grizzly. Instead, he loads this the film with silliness. Dick Miller does a hilarious twist on the mayor in Jaws; Barbara Steele portrays a bizarre military scientist, as does genre vet Kevin McCarthy, in all his wide eyed delirium. Dillman does a great job as the curmudgeonly reluctant hero, and Menzies brings spunk as the not so talented PI. As for the piranhas themselves, the attacks are overly gory as they munch on prosthetic body parts created by a teenage Rob Bottin. The only drawback is that the feeding frenzies are repetitive; there’s only so much a school of sharp toothed fish can do. But hey, the buffet is still fun to watch.
The disc for Piranha boasts a few special features, the gem of which is a commentary track with Dante and producer Jon Davidson. I love Dante’s commentary tracks. The man knows his stuff about the genre, and is genuinely likable in a frenetic sort of way. He relays some great stories about the movie, and also some of the quirks of working for the legendary Corman. There’s a home movies feature that runs nearly 10 minutes long, but it’s really just 8mm film with no volume , but instead a commentary by Dante and Davidson. The blooper reel should be fun for those who like whacky outtakes. Rounding out the disc is a number of trailers for Corman classics, including Death Race 2000 and Grand Theft Auto. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the menu layout. The options appear on screen underwater, with our titular fish swimming in the background. Choose an option, and there’s a nifty surprise in store.
Piranha doesn’t make any lofty statements about the world, but it’s not supposed to. Instead, Joe Dante set out to have some fun with this flick, and fans should too.
–Phil Fasso

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