Movie Review – Piranha (1978)

Back in 1975, Jaws not only proved to be an extremely successful film in the theaters, but it also gave the audience a reason to think twice before swimming in the ocean.

Of course, the odds of being attacked by a shark are extremely slim, but you *really* don’t know what’s swimming underneath you.  Those might be some harmless fish tickling your toes, it might just be some seaweed, or it could be a sign that something much fiercer is about to attack your legs . . .

1978 saw the release of Piranha, a B-movie that’s partial parody, partial comedy, and partial bloody horror film involving swarms of aggressive fish with razor sharp teeth.  The film involves a school of genetically-modified piranha that are accidentally released into a river.  It’s a race against time to stop the fish before they attack a summer camp and, further downstream, the grand opening of a brand new water park.

Piranha (1978) - movie poster

Piranha (1978) – movie poster

Directed by Joe Dante, Piranha stars Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies as Paul Grogan and Maggie McKeown.  Supporting them are basically a bunch of obscure actors and actresses including Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele, Melody Thomas Scott, and iconic 1980s actor Dick Miller.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

Piranha begins with two teenagers who discover a seemingly abandoned swimming pool inside of a former military research base.  It’s late at night and nobody is in sight, so the two teenagers decide to go skinny dipping.  That turns out to be a fatal mistake as the pool is actually filled with carnivorous fish, and the two teenagers are brutally killed.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

A short while later, Maggie McKeown (Heathe Menzies) is assigned by an insurance company to find the missing teenagers.  She makes her way to Lost River Lake and finds local man Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman).  Paul is skeptical about finding anybody in those woods, but Maggie convinces him to help her find her way around the lake and to look for clues concerning the missing teenagers.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

Maggie thinks that they’ll find some clues at the old Army test site upstream.  It has a pool of water, and the teens may have gone swimming there and run into trouble.  The two of them arrive at the test site, and it looks like somebody may still be living there despite claims of the base being abandoned.  They see several odd species of fish in various aquariums.  Maggie finds some of the teens’ belongings and thinks that they may have drowned, so she wants to drain the pool to search for more clues.

Just as Maggie activates the drain, suddenly a crazed old man jumps out and tries to stop her.  There’s a brief struggle as Paul wrestles and tries to subdue the man.  Maggie decides to end the fight by hitting the man on the head, rendering him unconscious.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

The pool is quickly drained (it’s emptied into the lake), and Maggie and Paul discover a skeleton at the bottom of the pool.  The bones have been stripped clean of all the muscles.  As the two of them are examining the skeleton, the old man wakes and steals Maggie’s rental jeep.  He doesn’t make it too far as he slips unconscious again and totals the jeep in a wreck.  The two of them take the old man to Paul’s house for the night.  The next morning, Maggie and Paul decide to float the man downstream on Paul’s raft as it’s the quickest way to get him to medical treatment.  Paul mentions that his young daughter, Suzie Grogan (Shannon Collins), is currently attending a summer camp downstream.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

After the trio gets underway with their rafting trip, the old man wakes and reveals his identity as Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), a researcher at the test site.  He warns Maggie and Paul that the lake is filled with carnivorous piranha, and they were released into the lake when Maggie drained the pool.  These are also special piranha that have been engineered to survive in cold water.

Just as they’re trying to get answers out of Dr. Hoak, they spot the bloody corpse of Paul’s friend Jack (Keenan Wynn).  It’s not clear what attacked him, but he managed to crawl onto the dock where he quickly bled to death.  Meanwhile, a little further down river, a father is attacked and killed by the piranha while he’s in a canoe with his son.  The canoe capsizes and the boy struggles to stay afloat and away from the piranha.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

Once they’re underway again, Dr. Hoak reveals that the piranha were part of a top secret military project known as Operation: Razorteeth.  The goal was to engineer the piranha to survive in the North Vietnamese rivers and be used to attack the Viet Cong, but the U.S. involvement in the war ended before the piranha were ready for action.  Some of the piranha survived over the past few years, and Dr. Hoak has tended to them at the Army test site.

Suddenly it dawns on Maggie and Paul that not only are these particular piranha a threat to the entire world if they reach the ocean, but there are people at risk to them on that very river.  It turns out that Suzie’s summer camp is downstream.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

While trying to push their raft faster downstream, the group spots the boy on the capsized canoe.  Dr. Hoak sacrifices his life by swimming in the river and transferring the boy to the raft.  He saves the boy, but the piranha attack and kill the scientist.  Dr. Hoak’s body is placed on the raft, but his lifeless hand is still in the water, and the smell of his blood attract the piranha.  The school of fish attack the raft by biting through the ropes holding together the logs.  The raft begins to fall apart and the boy, Maggie and Paul have to make a daring jump to the nearby shore.  They make it just as the raft is completely destroyed.

Paul then runs along the shore and reaches the dam before a technician opens the flood gates as part of a routine control of the river.  He convinces the technician to keep the gates closed, and, for the time being, the school of piranha are trapped at that point in the river.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

The military is called and a convoy quickly arrives at the dam.  Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and scientist Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) briefly examine the situation and decide to use poison to kill the fish.  Paul and Maggie are skeptical that the poison will work as the fish could simply swim upstream to avoid it.  Paul also points out that there’s a small stream that actually circles around the dam, and the fish can use that to escape as well.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

Colonel Waxman doesn’t care about Paul and Maggie’s concerns.  He doesn’t want them to alert the media either, so he orders for the two of them to be held in quarantine.  Their containment doesn’t last for long as Maggie distracts the soldier so that Paul can subdue him.  The two of them then steal an Army truck and try to make their way down the river.  They’re stopped a little while later by a police officer, and after confirming their story with the military, the police follow Colonel Waxman’s orders and lock Paul and Maggie in separate prison cells.  Maggie intentionally damages her cell and tricks a police officer into entering it and looking at the damage.  While he’s looking down, Maggie hits him over the head and knocks him unconscious.  She then steals his keys, frees Paul, and the two of them steal a police cruiser and continue driving down the river.

The following day involves swimming activities at both the summer camp as well as Aquarena, a new amusement and water park situated along the river.  People in both areas flock to the water, completely oblivious to the approaching danger from upstream.

While driving to the summer camp, Paul realizes that he tasted salt water back at the Army test site.  That means that the prianha (ordinarily freshwater fish), have also been engineered to survive in salt water.  This means that if the deadly fish continue swimming down the river and reach the ocean, then they can literally swim anywhere.  Nobody will be safe from these fish.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

A few moments later the piranha attack the summer camp children and teenagers swimming in the water.  There’s little that the people can do as the fish bite arms and legs, and they also destroy the their inflatable rafts.  Paul’s daughter Suzie summons her courage and uses a raft to safe her friend, camp leader Laura Dickinson (Melody Thomas Scott).  Unfortunately, fellow camp leader Betsy (Belinda Balaski) is attacked and killed by the piranha.  Paul and Maggie arrive and help pull the survivors out of the river.  Paul is briefly reunited with his daughter before he and Maggie race downstream to warn the people at Aquarena.

Meanwhile, Aquarena owner Buck Gardner (Dick Miller) shows no concern about the threat of piranha and the safety of his guests.  He refuses to do anything until the fish suddenly attack and begin killing the swimmers in the river.  Colonel Waxman falls off a party raft and is one of many victims to the piranha.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

When Paul and Maggie arrive at Aquarena and witness the carnage, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands.  He and Maggie take a speedboat and race to an industrial plant on the river.  Paul ties a tow rope around his waist, dives into the water, and tries to turn a wheel to release industrial waste into the water to kill the piranha.  He struggles with the rusty valve and the piranha start to attack him.  This motivates Paul and he summons the strength to turn the valve, allowing the waste to flow into the river.  At that point Maggie has counted to one hundred, and she advances the boat’s throttle and races away, pulling Paul clear of the piranha and the toxic waste.

Maggie pulls Paul to safety back at Aquarena.  Last we see, Paul is seriously injured and lying still in a catatonic state.

Piranha (1978) - (c) United Artists

Piranha (1978) – (c) United Artists

Piranha ends with Dr. Mengers giving a televised interview to a reporter.  She downplays the events and states that none of the piranha will reach the ocean.  She lies and says that they couldn’t survive in the salt water anyway.  The last shot shows waves crashing on a beach and we hear the ominous sounds of the piranha, suggesting that some of them may have survived after all.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Is 1978’s Piranha any good?

Believe it or not, but this version of Piranha isn’t that bad.  It’s quirky at times, there are some lousy actors, the script stinks, the special effects are corny at times, and this is clearly a B-movie that should never be taken seriously, but there’s still something special about this horror film.  I can’t really put my finger on it, but something about Piranha still makes this somewhat of a fun and entertaining film.

Be cautioned that this film is very bloody at times, children and adults are killed (some of the scenes of adults being killed are pretty brutal), and there’s some female nudity in the beginning and near the middle of the film.  Oddly enough, despite the nudity and the bloody and sometimes graphic violence, there really isn’t much profanity in this movie.  Despite that, you still may want to reconsider before allowing the kiddies to watch Piranha.

Piranha (1978) – movie trailer

Piranha is a great film when it comes to reminding the audience that when you go swimming in lakes and rivers, then you’ll probably be swimming with fish as well.  You might even think twice about letting your feet dangle in the water.  You never know just what might swim over and investigate your feet . . .

Let’s also not forget that Piranha is a great summer film as well as people flock to the lakes, rivers and beaches.  Make it a point to watch this film *before* heading out to the lake this weekend.  Then when you’re swimming and drifting in the water, remember that fish are probably swimming beneath you at that very moment.  😉

1978’s Piranha is a great film to watch with your friends.  Prepare some snacks, chill the beer, and get ready to have some laughs and plenty of gore with this movie.

three stars

Whitney – “The piranhas…”
Buck Gardner – “What about the goddamn piranhas?”
Whitney – “They’re eating the guests, sir.”

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