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Piranha: Remembering Joe Dante's 1978 Cult Classic

Joe Dante's legendary creature feature is so much more than a Jaws knockoff.

By Matthew Jackson

In the late 1970s, exploitation and genre filmmakers everywhere were chasing a couple of different phenomena with mixed results: the success of Star Wars and, of course, the success of Jaws. The first true summer blockbusters had producers seeing dollar signs, and that meant the ensuing decades after each film's release were full of imitators, thematic riffs, and stories set within the same subgenre.

There are a number of excellent animal attack movies that arrived in the wake of Jaws, ranging from Alligator to Grizzly to the underseen gem Razorback, but the film at the head of the pack turned out to be Piranha. Directed by Joe Dante, in his horror feature debut, and distributed by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, it has all the makings of a Jaws follow-up, from a memorable title creature to an ensemble cast setting out to defeat the creatures in question. It's easy to see why producers jumped at the chance to make a horror film in this vein, but looking back at the film now (it's currently streaming on Peacock for your viewing pleasure), you'll find much more than just an attempt to follow in Steven Spielberg's footsteps. 

Why now is a great time to revisit Joe Dante's 1978 cult classic, Piranha 

That sense of the film going its own way and leaving the Jaws comparisons behind isn't just something you need to learn with hindsight, though. It's there right from the very beginning, in the plot points about mutated piranha designed for military use, an abandoned facility, and the accidental release of the fish onto an unwitting populace. The Jaws comparisons are really more about the authorities and their response to the piranha school, which ranges from indifference to outright covering up the danger, but even there the film wants to go its own way, wants to have fun with its own concept. Whether it's digging into post-Vietnam scars or examining the ways in which people on the fringes, societal outsiders, can make the biggest difference, Piranha emerges with a set of themes and tropes all its own, even when compared with the wider animal attack genre. 

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The corpse of a man underwater in Piranha (1978)

That sense of individuality in the film extends even further when you move past John Sayles' script and into Dante's direction, which is simultaneously grounded in its execution and gleeful in its use of various B-movie creature feature tropes. Joe Dante is a director who knows how to make you believe in the story he's telling, but he's also a guy who clearly has a lot of affection for the kinds of creature attack movies that predate even Jaws, the ones that were unapologetically just a little bit schlocky and over-the-top. That affection shines through in every frame of Piranha, from the attack on a local summer camp to the daring underwater sequences in the film's climax. We're watching a young filmmaker having a blast with this particular sandbox, and it's absolutely infectious. 

So yes, while Piranha undoubtedly got made because Jaws was successful and producers wanted more movies about creatures out to eat people alive, it's also a film with its own vibe that sets it apart completely from Spielberg's masterpiece. It's no wonder that Spielberg himself not only enjoyed the film, but ended up working with Dante on projects like Twilight Zone: The Movie and Gremlins just a few years later. What the films share is a love of creature feature cinema and all the inventive things you can do with it, but just like JawsPiranha stands alone.

Piranha is now streaming on Peacock.