Joe Dante is a true aficionado of the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres — and today he turns 71 years old. Almost everyone can recall the first time they saw the director's slathering werewolf transformation of Eddie Quist in The Howling, the exhilaration they felt while imagining their own homemade spaceship in Explorers, or the delight that came from the devilish creatures rampaging around a snow-dusted Norman Rockwell town in Gremlins.
Dante is perhaps one of the most underrated genre filmmakers, as he effortlessly blended horror and comedy, resulting in a resume of entertaining pictures and a colorful collage of geeky '80s gems. He began his career as a young protegé of the King of Schlock, Roger Corman, who hired the budding filmmaker for editing jobs, then asked him to direct the Jaws-like horror flick Piranha in 1978. Some of his most successful films were his team-ups with executive producer Steven Spielberg in Gremlins and Innerspace.
With 40 years of movie mastery under his belt, Dante's roster of fan favorites remain as fresh and enjoyable as the day they were released.
Here's a definitive ranking of Dante's genre films to debate and devour on the affable creator's birthday. So blow out the candles, then tell us which ones are the icing on your cake!
Burying the Ex, 2015
This horror comedy starring the late Anton Yelchin is Dante's most recent directorial effort and revolves around the girlfriend of a horror movie fanatic who dies in a freak accident and returns to life as a zombie. Dante saw it as a homage to vintage EC Comics stories, but it wasn't given a wide release and remains a minor success in the director's catalog.
This was Dante's first feature after Gremlins. The film is most famous for showcasing the screen debut of Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, whose characters build a homemade spaceship and embark on an outer space adventure. Paramount rushed this movie into theaters for the summer season, and Dante regrets that the script improvisations and hurried editing contributed to its box office failure. Still a fun flick to watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon, though.
Small Soldiers, 1998
With themes similar to Gremlins, Dante scores with a sci-fi tech thriller about a line of Elite Commando action figures embedded with military smart hardware. Treads in the same territory of kids battling back against the mischievous soldiers who resort to their prior programming. Dante wanted this to be a teenage film, but toy sponsors insisted the action and violence be toned down just before it was released. Given the time, it used a combination of Stan Winston puppets and CGI to create the impressive special effects.
The Hole, 2009
Here's a little-seen 3D horror project that involves two brothers who discover a bottomless hole in their new home that induces nightmarish visions of their most potent fears. Many see this as a nostalgic trip back to the types of PG-rated movies Dante was making back in his heydays of the '80s. It spotlights a fresh, inspired cast, fun scares, Bruce Dern in full crazy-old-man mode, and a seriously creepy jester puppet!
Gremlins 2: The New Batch, 1990
This Gremlins sequel is a perfectly acceptable follow-up to the original and retains its wacky humor, this time occurring inside a downtown high-rise skyscraper. After Gizmo's curiosity-shop home is destroyed, he takes up residence inside a media mogul's building with the predictable results. More formulaic than the first film, but it does have its own crazy charm and some inventive practical effects sequences.
A semi-remake of the 1966 sci-fi fantasy film Fantastic Voyage, Dante again works his magic on a tale of a miniaturized craft. This one was piloted by Dennis Quaid and inserted into the body of an innocent grocery clerk played by Martin Short, who's pursued by evil scientists out to steal the technology. Only a moderate success in that year's crowded box office, it did win an Academy Award for its Visual Effects, the only Dante film to receive that honor.
This Jaws-ish horror parody was Joe Dante's first directorial job, assigned by B-movie master Roger Corman. It showcased something strange in the waters of Lost River Lake Resort. The flesh-munching fish feast on summer revelers and turn the vacationers' playground into a red-splashed smorgasbord. Made on a shoestring budget of $600,000 it went on to become one of New World Pictures' biggest hits, reeling in $16 million.
Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983
Dante directed one of the best segments of this Spielberg produced sci-fi fantasy anthology, which reworked three of the classic Twilight Zone episodes. Dante's chapter, "It's a Good Life," is a modern redo of the 1961 episode that starred Billy Mumy (Lost in Space) as a weird child capable of mentally manifesting anything he chooses and reading people's minds. Dante amps up the color and chaos with some spectacular special effects by Ron Bottin, especially the giant demonic rabbit pulled out of a hat by Kevin McCarthy.
The Howling, 1981
This is a must-see for any fans of werewolf movies, as it contains one of the most unsettling and realistic transformation scenes ever. Dee Wallace plays a traumatized news reporter seeking rest and relaxation at a spiritual retreat who instead finds a colony of lycanthropes who like their burgers rare. This was special effects wizard Rob Bottin's first solo gig before going on to do John Carpenter's The Thing the following year.
It's hard not to place Gremlins at the top of Dante's achievements. After 33 years, it still holds up as a perfectly balanced Christmastime horror indulgence, sprinkled with sly comedy and a menacing violence hinted at in the best of the Warner Bros. Looney Toons shorts. Originally released in the summer, it's coming back to theaters in December for a special Mondo-sponsored screening titled Gremlins: Rule Breakers.