Piranha (1978) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 23

by Jovial Jay

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

Part Jaws rip-off, part satire, part B-grade horror film, Piranha shows that big things can come in little packages.

Before Viewing

The trailer tells audiences that sharks come alone, but piranha come in thousands. At a summer camp, the lake is full of piranha that start attacking the swimmers. But you’re safe as long as you stay in the lake, right? Nope. A piranha launches itself into the air and bites a guy’s face! There looks like a number of cameos by classic horror actors like Kevin McCarthy and Paul Bartel. I’m just going to dip my toe in…

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween


Piranha title card.

After Viewing

A pair of hikers ignore the “no trespassing” signs at an old Army facility in the mountains of Texas and decide to skinny dip in a pool. They are suddenly pulled under in a churning mass of bubbles and blood. Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), a smart and street-wise skip tracer, is sent to locate them sometime later. She meets up with Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who is a drunk, divorced, ex-smelter, whom she asks to help find the kids. He grudgingly agrees and they investigate the Army base, finding an old man who tries to prevent them from opening the drain to the pond.

They learn, after the fact from Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), that the pond contained mutated piranha that he was experimenting on, and the stupidly just released them into the stream to flow downriver. He explains that it was part of a government program to genetically engineer these “razorteeth” to defeat the North Vietnamese. But when the war ended funding was cut off, however Dr. Hoak still continued his work. Paul realizes that his daughter’s summer camp is downstream and they grab his raft, and the doctor, to make their way to the dam to stop the fish from getting that far.

On their way they encounter Paul’s friend, Jack (Keenan Wynn), who had his feet eaten off and bled to death, as well as a young boy on a canoe whose father was eaten. Dr. Hoak blames the Generals and the policy makers for any deaths, as he’s just a scientist. But when he sees the boy, he jumps in the water to help the boy onto the raft, sacrificing himself. They make it shore after their raft is attacked by the aggressive fish. Paul runs to stop the dam operator from opening the spillway–and succeeds.


Maggie and Paul discover what appears to be a dog carcass when they drain the pond, accidentally releasing mutated fish into the ecosystem.

The Army shows up shortly led by Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele). They believe there’s no issue and the fish have been stopped in time, but Paul shows them that there’s a small tributary that circumvents the dam, leading to the summer camp and the new resort, Aquarena. After being put under guard, Paul and Maggie sneak out of the army barracks after a call to the camp director goes unheeded, but are pulled over by a local police officer that recognizes Paul and thinks he’s drunk again. They are put in jail overnight, all the while trying to convince someone that people’s lives are in danger.

At the summer camp, Mr. Dumont (Paul Bartel) organizes the water competition with his two counselors Betsy (Belinda Balaski) and Laura (Melody Thomas). Suzie Grogran (Shannon Collins) is afraid of the water and hides under a canoe. Piranha start attacking the campers and counselors, but Suzie helps rescue Laura. Unfortunately Betsy is eaten and drowns. Paul and Maggie get there too late, but head on to the resort, whose grand opening is happening.

Buck Gardner (Dick Miller) is hosting the opening of his Aquarena resort, which the Colonel has some investment in. He’s been told to keep quiet on the piranha news, should he get a call. A scuba diver gets attacked, and then a number of people near the beach. The Colonel’s boat is swarmed by people trying to get out of the water and he accidentally falls in and is eaten. Paul and Maggie take a power boat further down river to the smelting plant and release toxic chemicals into the river to kill the piranha before the fish can get to the ocean and spread around the world. Paul manages to open the drain but is attacked, and almost dies. The film ends with Dr. Mengers denying the seriousness of the situation and telling the news reporter “there is nothing left to fear.” At a beach elsewhere, the sound of the piranha is heard in the surf.

People eat fish, Grogan. Fish don’t eat people.” – Dumont


Camp Director Dumont is the absolute worst!

Piranha is a B-movie that has enough charisma and the ability to not take itself too seriously. It was the first major hit for director Joe Dante, who’s comedic horror films include The Howling, Gremlins, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and The ‘Burbs. He has the ability to blend seriously scary moments with clever social satire, and awkwardly funny scenes. In another director’s hands, Piranha could have been just another low-budget Jaws ripoff. But Dante’s ability to get the best from his cast, as well as clever references created a cult classic film that thrills and entertains.

The film starts off enough like Jaws to draw immediate comparisons (not even counting the reference to sharks in the trailer). Lone swimmers in the dark when something unseen and unexpected (at least for them) kills them. From there we get the main and reluctant protagonists brought in, followed by the expert. And instead of a holiday weekend on an island, a summer camp and recreation center grand opening serve as the buffet for these hungry little fish.


Dr. Hoak warns Maggie not top stick her hand in the water. The audience knows why, and it’s a freaky moment!

Dante’s handling of the script provides the right balance between earnest seriousness towards the threat and just enough eye-winking at the absurdity of the situation. Paul’s constant drinking “not water” leads into multiple situations where people assume he’s drunk. The subverted expectations of him reaching the dam…in time! Unfortunately the tributary circumvents the dam. “Evil” low lighting on the Colonel and Dr. Mengers as they ask Buck to stay tight-lipped about the piranha problem. These plus even more overt moments (such as Maggie asking the guard is he’s gay) keep the mood light in between action sequences of piranha dining.

Of course the over-the-top performance of Kevin McCarthy and Paul Bartel make for a fun and joyous viewing. The camp counselor that in all seriousness, and with obvious foreshadowing, tells his scared camper that fish don’t eat people. He has to be the absolute worst camp director in the world! I haven’t even mentioned the other odd hybrid piranha that are seen in Dr. Hoak’s lab. Some of Phil Tippet’s early animated work can be seen with the two-legged, air breathing piranha that resembles the small Ymir creature from 20 Million Miles to Earth. The special effects overall are simple enough to work and not draw too much attention to the fact that they are all little rubber fish.

If you enjoy not-so-serious horror movies then Piranha is a good one to throw on. A lot of Dante’s style can be seen here at its infancy, and the bad guys all get their comeuppance (for the most part). It even leaves room open for a sequel, which there were plenty of. Stay with me for another week of 31 Days of Horror, as I really turn up the fright factor.


Lunch is served, courtesy of Buck Gardner–to hundreds of tiny, and very hungry fish.

Assorted Musings

  • Joe Dante’s second directorial effort after Hollywood Boulevard, which coincidentally was the film on TV in The Slumber Party Massacre (last night’s film).
  • Spawned (literally) multiple sequels and remakes including Piranha II: The Spawning (1981, notable for being James Cameron’s directorial debut), Piranha (1995), Piranha 3D (2010), and Piranha 3DD (2012).
  • Both Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller were favorite casting choices for Joe Dante, appearing in almost all of his films. McCarthy is famous for his role in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) as well as a cameo in its 1978 remake.

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