45 years ago today, the bloody creature feature Piranha by the great Joe Dante was unleashed upon moviegoing audiences. It was one of the more notable “killer fish” films in the wake of the monumental success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
The movie stars Bradford Dillman (Escape From the Planet of the Apes), Dick Miller (Gremlins), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and Heather Menzies-Urich (The Sound of Music). It sees a pack of flesh-eating piranha created by the government accidentally let loose on a summer resort. Bloody chaos naturally ensues.
While Piranha’s existence owes an awful lot to Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster shark movie (executive producer Roger Corman proudly called it his “homage to Jaws”), there was no ill will from Spielberg, who claimed it was the best of the Jaws rip-offs after getting an advance screening. The Jurassic Park director’s positive reaction to Dante’s film also helped Corman’s New World company avoid a potential lawsuit from Universal Studios.
Piranha’s bite on horror culture didn’t end at that film. Its teeth got deep enough to have lasting impact on the industry in many ways.
It helped kick off Dante’s career, and he would then go on to direct plenty of hit movies such as The Howling, Gremlins, and The Burbs, not to mention his actual collaboration with Spielberg on The Twilight Zone: The Movie. The practical FX crew contained Phill Tippett, who would also go on to work with Spielberg for Jurassic Park. The reviled sequel Piranha II: The Spawning gave a directorial debut to James Cameron (in conjunction with the more seasoned Ovidio G. Assonitis).
A remake dubbed Piranha 3D starring Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, and Elizabeth Shue was released in 2010. It was directed by Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes Remake, Crawl, Mirrors). A lesser sequel came not long after.
In the long history of animal attack movies, Piranha may not be as memorable as iconic as the greats, but it is an important one all the same.