★★★★out of ★★★★★
Ah. Near 1970s perfection. Gory, but not too gory. Pretty people, but not too pretty. Scary, but not too scary. Jaws rip-off, but not too plagiaristic. Government conspiracy, but not too conspiracy-ish.
A drive-in gem that needs to be seen again and again and again. Of course, dear readers, we’re talking about a fun road trip romp out to Lost Lake Resort for a little sun, swimming, Budweiser, and PIRANHAS! Uh, wait, what?!?!?
Piranha never disappoints. Whether it’s the first viewing courtesy of a janky cable box where you delicately hold the dial between channels 33 and 32, or you happen to catch a 35mm print at your local grindhouse haunt, or you find the find of all finds in the VHS bin at goodwill — this film gives and gives.
Originally released in August 1978 — just 40 years ago — Piranha is directed by the great Joe Dante (Howling, Gremlins, and Rock and Roll High School). At its core the film follows Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) who plays the part of a somewhat reckless and headstrong skip tracer (Ed. Note. we’re not sure this is even still a thing) who’s hot on the heels of a young couple out for a mid-summer backpacking trip. Unfortunately, the young couple, as does Maggie, encounter a secret shuttered military compound. The unfortunate part is that the base was concocted for a cryptic program: Operation Razor Teeth. Turns out ‘Nam was getting mighty intense in the early 1970s and someone (…let’s say Richard Nixon, cuz why not) had this diabolical plan in his skeezy mind to release salt water/fresh water-tolerant PIRANHAS throughout ‘Nam. The government figured these little aquatic nasties would have the Vietnamese crying uncle in no time. Operation Razor Teeth was never fully deployed and the military was stuck holding on to a vast swimming pool network of chompiest fish you’ve ever seen.
Maggie, being a sound skip tracer, decides to leave no stone unturned in her quest for the backpacking couple and inadvertently pulls the plug on swimming pool holding the PIRANHAS. Are they flopping at the bottom of the pool? Of course not. They’re dumped in to a nearby river courtesy of the finest underground military waterway engineering. Thanks U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Maggie, the mad-scientist who spawned Operation Teeth, and a local recluse/drunkard Paul Grogan (played by Bradford Dillman — the Enforcer, Escape from Planet of the Apes, and Falcon Crest) head down river in a Huckleberry Finn-y raft to warn the authorities.
All the while the chompy little devils are headed downstream to get to chomping, local entreprenuer Buck Garner is celebrating the grand opening of the Lost Lake Resort. Thousands have flocked to the water for some Texas sun, swimming, hot dogs, hot chicks, brewskis, and…blood! While these Texans are out for a good time, Lost Lake Resort owner, Buck Garner, has teamed up with a local military general who’s in charge of: Operation Razor Teeth. Government conspiracy + the all mighty dollar = Lost Lake Resort isn’t going to shut down, piranhas or no piranhas.
The local camp and camp counselor (defly played by the super-great Paul Bartel) are overrun with viciousness and violence. After the insatiable biters are done with the kiddies they head further down the river for a Texas-style smorgasbord and total annihilation of every last swimmer they can get in to. Piranha erupts in to a chaotic final scene complete with more blood than anyone really needs to see and some truly traumatized Texans. Paul and Maggie try to use a local sewage plant to poison the fish with pollution, but are they too late? We won’t tell you here, but we will say the film ends with one of the best lines in cinema history. Cut to a coastal beach and a dulcet sunset, the military giving an TV interview about the piranha apocalypse, eerily says “…there’s nothing left to fear”, as blood ominously runs down the screen.
Sure Piranha has aged over the years. Some of the dialogue is a little clunky. Some of the acting’s a little forced. Some of the piranhas don’t really look like Piranhas. But…taken as a whole, Joe Dante really gives a master class in fun, frivolity, and fright. In the current era of hyper-serious horror, we could all use a pinch more Piranha in our diet.