Piranha (1978 film)

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Theatrical release poster by John Solie
Directed byJoe Dante
Screenplay byJohn Sayles
Story by
  • Richard Robinson
  • John Sayles
Produced byJon Davison
CinematographyJamie Anderson
Edited by
Music byPino Donaggio
Piranha Productions
Distributed by
Release dates
  • July 28, 1978 (1978-07-28) (Detroit)
  • August 3, 1978 (1978-08-03) (United States)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$16 million[citation needed] or $2.9 million[3]

Piranha is a 1978 American horror film directed and co-edited by Joe Dante from a screenplay by John Sayles, based on a story by Richard Robinson and Sayles. The film stars Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele and Dick Miller. It 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.

Executive produced by Roger Corman, Piranha is the first installment in 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 had considered obtaining an injunction to prevent Piranha being released, particularly as they had released Jaws 2 the same summer, but the lawsuit was dropped 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 find an abandoned military compound and skinny dip in a holding pool, but are attacked and killed by unseen creatures.

Sometime later, determined yet absent-minded skiptracer Maggie McKeown is dispatched to find the missing teenagers near Lost River Lake and hires a surly backwoods drunkard, Paul Grogan, to guide her. They discover the compound and find bizarre jarred specimens and evidence of an occupant inside. Locating a drainage switch for the nearby pool, Maggie empties it to search the bottom, but a haggard man enters and tries to stop her until Paul subdues him. The pair find a skeleton in the pool's filtration trap and learn it was filled with saltwater. The man awakens and steals their jeep, but crashes due to being disoriented and is taken to Paul's home. The next day, as the three travel downriver, the stranger tells the pair the pool was filled with a school of piranha and Maggie released them into the river. She and Paul are skeptical until they come across the corpse of Paul's friend Jack.

The stranger reveals himself as Dr. Robert Hoak, lead scientist of a defunct Vietnam War project called Operation: Razorteeth, which involved genetically engineering a ravenous and prodigious strain of piranha that could endure the North Vietnamese rivers' cold waters and inhibit Viet Cong movement. The project was canceled after the war ended, but the mutant specimens survived and Hoak tended to them to salvage his work. Paul realizes that if the local dam is opened, the piranha will gain access to the Lost River resort and the nearby summer camp. On their way, the trio rescue a boy whose father was killed by the piranha, but Hoak is killed by the mutants before he can reveal how to kill them and the survivors narrowly make it to shore. Grogan successfully stops the dam attendant from opening the spillway before calling the military.

A military team led by Colonel Waxman and former Razorteeth scientist Dr. Mengers spread poison upstream, ignoring protests that the piranha survived the first attempt. When Paul discovers a tributary that bypasses the dam, Waxman and Mengers quarantine him and Maggie to prevent them from alerting the media. The pair escape, but Waxman alerts law enforcement to capture them while the piranha attack the summer camp, injuring the children and murdering Betsy, a camp counselor.

Waxman and Mengers arrive at the resort to intercept Paul and Maggie, but the piranha attack and kill many vacationers and Waxman. Intending to prevent the piranha from reaching the ocean and spreading around the world, Paul and Maggie commandeer a speedboat and rush to a shuttered smelting plant in the hopes that they can use its industrial waste to kill the mutants. They arrive at the plant before the piranha, but the control office is submerged, forcing Paul to go underwater with a safety line. Despite being attacked by the piranha, he opens the valves and Maggie pulls him to safety. The pair return to the resort, where Paul enters a catatonic state. During a televised interview, Mengers spins an altered version of events and downplays the piranha's existence.



Initially the film had been given a $900,000 budget, but a few days before shooting Roger Corman slashed the budget by $200,000 in order to give additional resources to Avalanche.[4] As Corman was per-occupied with Avalanche, director Joe Dante and his crew were left mostly to themmselves with Corman not visiting the set and not even aware of who was in the movie until he saw the final cut.[4] Phil Tippett constructed 76 rubber piranhas and 4 with metal teeth for close-ups in four weeks, while Chris Walas and Rob Short crafted the prosthetic limbs the piranhas tear into.[4] As producer Jon Davison was a fan of stop-motion animation he had wanted to use the technique for the Piranhas but was unfeasible given the films budget.[4] As a consolation, Tippett included a stop-motion sequence involving a creatures visually inspired by Ymir lurking around Dr. Hoak's lab that would return for an ending stinger with the creature having grown giant-sized and now looking menacingly over Santa Monica Beach but the ending was ultimately abandoned.[4]



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.[5]

Home media[edit]

In 2004, New Concorde Home Entertainment released the film on special edition DVD.[6]

In 2010, as a tie-in to the release of the remake, Shout! Factory re-released Piranha on DVD and Blu-ray.[7]

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.[8]


Critical response[edit]

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".[9] 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".[10] 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.[11] 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".[12] 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".[13]

The film later acquired a cult status. It currently has a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 28 reviews, with an average rating of 6.5 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."[14]

Steven Spielberg called the film "the best of the Jaws ripoffs".[5]


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."[15] 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."[16] The film's cast includes Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfuss, Adam Scott and Jerry O'Connell.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chute, David (1984). "Dante's Inferno". Film Comment. 20 (3). New York: 22–27, 80. ProQuest 210263969.
  2. ^ Christopher T Koetting, Mind Warp!: The Fantastic True Story of Roger Corman's New World Pictures, Hemlock Books. 2009 p 146-147
  3. ^ Donahue, Suzanne Mary (1987). American film distribution : the changing marketplace. UMI Research Press. p. 294. ISBN 9780835717762. Please note figures are for rentals in US and Canada
  4. ^ a b c d e Mandell, Paul (1978). "Piranha". Cinefantastique. Fourth Castle Micromedia. Retrieved February 4, 2024.
  5. ^ a b McBride, Joseph (1999). Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press. p. 257. ISBN 0-306-80900-1.
  6. ^ "Piranha: The Directors' Series". dvdempire.com. Retrieved 2011-03-31.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "L.A.: FANGO & Secret Sixteen Present One-Night-Only Screening of "PIRANHA: THE ULTIMATE EDITION"". Fangoria. May 26, 2010. Archived from the original on September 10, 2017. Retrieved December 10, 2010.
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger (2000). I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing. ISBN 9780740792489.
  10. ^ "Piranha". Variety: 20. August 9, 1978.
  11. ^ Siskel, Gene (August 31, 1978). "Two films satisfy public's appetite for the tasteless". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 6.
  12. ^ Forbes, Jill (November 1978). "Piranha". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 45 (#538): 224.
  13. ^ Bilbow, Marjorie (November 4, 1978). "The New Films". Screen International: 21.
  14. ^ "Piranha (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved August 11, 2023.
  15. ^ McClintock, Pamela (March 15, 2007). "Aja bites into 'Piranha'". Variety. Penske Business Media, LLC. Retrieved August 28, 2009.
  16. ^ "Piranha, Escape From NY remake updates". Fangoria.com. Starlog Group, Inc. Archived from the original on February 17, 2008. Retrieved September 9, 2007.

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