Release Date(s)1978 (November 1, 2022)
Studio(s)New World Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A-
Joe Dante’s Piranha is one of the many animal attack movies that followed in the wake of the unprecedented success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Jaws definitely received more than its fair share of sycophancy. Some of these mimics at least tried to change their contexts, if not their actual narratives—for example, William Girdler’s Grizzly moved its own setting into the wilderness, and exchanged the scaly threat for a slightly hairier one. Others, like Orca and Tentacles, didn’t even bother to go that far. Never one to overlook a trend in search of a way to make a quick buck, Roger Corman finally jumped on the animal attack bandwagon in 1978 with Piranha, just in time for the release of Universal’s troubled sequel Jaws 2. Corman being Corman, he didn’t make the slightest effort to disguise what he was ripping off. That drew Universal’s ire, but a last-minute intervention from Spielberg stopped them from trying to gain an injunction against the release of Piranha. Corman ended up laughing all the way to the bank, as his cheap knockoff turned a tidy profit—in fact, in terms of the ratio between budget and box office receipts, it could be argued that it was more profitable than Universal’s official sequel.
Piranha really, really isn’t shy about its inspirations. In the best spirit of classic exploitation filmmaking, all that Corman needed to sell the film was a poster and a title, and the original posters for Piranha didn’t leave much room for doubt about the kind of film that it was. When the story treatment that he received from Richard Robinson didn’t seem to be going anywhere, Corman brought in John Sayles to punch things up, and Sayles understood the nature of his mission all too well. Piranha opens with two swimmers meeting their fate while testing the waters at night, and the structure of the rest of his script also follows the basic narrative arc of Jaws to a T. The New England beaches were transformed into a Texas summer camp and resort, and the forces of unbridled commerce represented by the oily Mayor Vaughn were traded in for the even oilier Buck Gardner (Dick Miller), but it’s still essentially the same story. (And with all due respects to the superb Murray Hamilton, that was arguably a trade up. It’s Dick Miller, for God’s sake.) Top-billed Bradford Dillman’s character is basically a combination of both Quint and Hooper, rolled into a single flannel-wrapped package. There’s even a water-skiing sequence straight out of Jaws 2, although that may have been a coincidence, as both films were in production concurrently. Yet Piranha was shot much more quickly, and the trailers for Jaws 2 would have already been out in the market, so anything is possible.
Corman hired a young and inexperienced Joe Dante to helm Piranha, fresh off of his efforts co-directing Hollywood Boulevard with his pal Allan Arkush. He delivered all of the nudity and gore that Corman mandated, but he did so with the kind of wit and flair that would become the hallmark of his entire career. Just in case anyone missed the point of the poster and the pre-credit sequence, Dante showed his heroine Maggie (Heather Menzies-Urich) playing a Jaws video game right after the opening credits finished. Of course, Piranha is as much of a parody of Jaws as it is a rip-off, and Dante knew exactly how to deliver the perfect kind of tongue-in-cheek tone to make it work. Sayles was right on board with that, and it’s no accident that the two of them would reunite later for The Howling.
Dante also assembled a great cast for Piranha, surrounding Dillman, Menzies, and Miller with the likes of Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Paul Bartel, Belinda Balaski, Bruce Gordon, Barbara Steele, and Sayles. They all got into the spirit of the proceedings, and some of them would go on to become members of Dante’s stock company. They all act firmly according to type, and yet there are a few unexpected touches along the way. Bartel primarily plays his standard oafish blowhard as the camp director, and yet he still ends up acting bravely after the piranhas show up for lunch. For a film that openly puts small children into bloody peril, it was probably a good idea to have all of the adults do whatever was necessary to protect them, Bartel included.
For a low-budget production, the technical work on Piranha is surprisingly good. Jaws had gone to a great deal of effort and expense to try to create a convincing mechanical shark, only to end up cutting around the malfunctioning beast in the final edit. Piranha’s creatures are little more than barely-articulated puppets on sticks, and yet they were still brought to credible life by an effects crew that included Phil Tippett, John Berg, Chris Walas, and Rob Bottin. Editor Mark Goldblatt employed some effective flash cutting to help disguise the seams (and the sticks!), while the buzzing, boiling sound effect for the attacks helps to tie all of the visual chaos together.
Tippett even got to indulge himself with an incongruous but still nifty stop-motion animated creature for an early scene. It may seem to come out of left field in the final cut, but Dante’s original idea was to include more of it throughout the film, and also to use it as a way of ending things on a very different note, one that would have openly moved the story into Ray Harryhausen territory. Unfortunately, Corman’s minuscule budget wouldn’t allow for that kind of ambition. While Dante’s plan would have elevated an already enjoyable horror-comedy to the next level, there’s still plenty of cleverness on display in the version of the film that made it into the theatres in 1978. The greatest lesson that Corman taught to generations of budding young filmmakers was to make do with the resources that they were given, however limited that those resources may have been. Dante was one of the few of them who had the knack not just to make things work despite any limitations, but also to turn that vice into a creative virtue. He didn’t always feel that way about himself while he was making his early films, and he’s openly admitted that he sometimes fell into despondency on set, thinking that he was making a complete disaster. Needless to say, he was wrong on that score. Piranha may not be a perfect film, but it’s a perfect example of what talented artists can accomplish regardless of budgetary constraints—and regardless of any self-doubts that they may have felt along the way.
Cinematographer Jamie Anderson shot Piranha on 35 mm film using Arriflex 35 IIC and Mitchell BNCR cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Piranha has had a torturous journey on digital disc, with both full-frame and widescreen DVDs being available, as well as a 2010 Blu-ray that was re-framed at 1.78:1. Shout! Factory rectified that situation with their 2019 Blu-ray version, which featured a transfer taken from a 4K scan of the negative, properly framed at 1.85:1. This Ultra HD version is described as a “new 2022 restoration of the 4K scan of the original camera negative,” and given that careful wording, it seems likely that it’s the same scan from 2019, just reworked for this release. Regardless of whether or not any additional cleanup work was done, the biggest change is that it’s now been regraded for High Dynamic Range (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are available on the disc).
Piranha isn’t the kind of production that could ever show a massive increase in fine detail, and yet there’s still a subtle but noticeable improvement here over the Blu-ray versions, even the remastered one that’s included in this set. Unsurprisingly, the biggest enhancement is in grain reproduction, with everything looking tighter and just a hair smoother in 4K. Yet there’s also some impressive texturing on display, and every stray wispy hair on Keenan Wynn’s head is nicely delineated. There’s some stock footage in the film that looks a bit rough compared to the surrounding material, and the occasional optical work looks a bit softer and less detailed, but most of that goes by pretty quickly. (Many of the shots of the piranha puppets were optically flopped, or else blown up to hide the mechanisms, but the flash cutting means that the differences are barely perceptible.) Still, most of the improvements come from the HDR grade, primarily in regards to contrast and black levels. Anderson did give some shots a hazy, diffuse look that softens the detail and contrast, but aside from that, the contrast range is much stronger in 4K. The color grading is a bit more restrained, with the reds, yellows, and greens looking just a touch more intense than they do on Blu-ray (especially during the blood-red opening and closing titles). No one involved with this new master tried to reinvent the wheel, just to refine it, and that’s always the best way to handle a catalogue title like this.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s definitely a low-budget sound mix, but the clarity is fine, the dialogue is clear, and Pino Donnagio’s melodramatic score sounds as good as it can. Noise and distortion are both at a minimum.
Shout! Factory’s 4K Ultra HD Collector’s Edition release of Piranha is a two-disc set that includes a remastered 1080p Blu-ray copy of the film (note that it’s not the same disc as their previous 2019 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray). The insert is reversible, with different theatrical poster artwork on each side, and it also includes a slipcover duplicating one of those poster designs. Aside from the commentary tracks, all of the extras are on the Blu-ray only. Everything from the 2019 disc has been carried forward, with one new addition:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary with Roger Corman and Justin Beahm
- Audio Commentary with Joe Dante and Jon Davison
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary with Roger Corman and Justin Beahm
- Audio Commentary with Joe Dante and Jon Davison
- Interview with Joe Dante (HD – 8:22)
- The Making of Piranha (Upscaled SD – 19:47)
- Trailers from Hell – Piranha (Upscaled SD – 2:30)
- Behind-the-Scenes Footage (Upscaled SD– 9:36)
- Additional Scenes from the TV Version of Piranha (Upscaled SD – 12:24)
- Bloopers and Outtakes (Upscaled SD – 6:49)
- Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:17)
- Teaser Trailer (HD – :38)
- TV Spot (Upscaled SD – :33)
- Radio Spots (HD – 1:08)
- Poster and Still Gallery (HD – 5:49)
- Phil Tippet’s Behind-the-Scenes Photographs (HD – 3:39)
Roger Corman’s commentary was recorded for the 2019 Shout! Blu-ray, shortly after Dick Miller had passed away. Justin Beahm from Reverend Entertainment served as moderator, and it’s not really a commentary about Piranha at all. Instead, it’s an extended audio interview, with Beahm guiding Corman on a journey through the legendary filmmaker’s entire career. That’s not to say that they don’t talk about Piranha, because they do, but it’s a far more wide-ranging experience than a standard commentary would be. Corman has always had a measured, deliberate way of speaking, and he would have been 93 when this was recorded, so it’s not exactly a fast-paced track. Yet his memories were still sharp, and so this is an invaluable record of his life and work.
The commentary with Dante and producer Jon Davison was originally recorded for the 1999 New Concorde 20th Anniversary DVD release of Piranha. (That’s one of the discs that was inexplicably full frame 1.33:1, and at one point Dante expresses bafflement at why the credits are letterboxed while the rest of the film isn’t.) Dante has always been one of the best commenters in the business, and he had good chemistry with Davison. The two of them provide a ton of entertaining behind-the-scenes stories, and they’re not shy about acknowledging all of the guerrilla tactics that they had to employ—for example, to secure the army trucks for one scene, they gave the local National Guard a fake script where the military was actually the hero. Dante also admits that the reason why he cast John Sayles as one of the soldiers was so that they’d have him handy on set if they needed any rewrites. (Sayles was so unimpressed with the work in progress that he briefly considered quitting the business, but he still ended up going on to script other films for both Corman and Dante, so it all worked out in the end.) It’s a great track from an era when special features were a bit less sanitized than they are these days—and note that unlike Dante’s original LaserDisc commentary for The Howling, which has been censored for DVD and Blu-ray, this one plays out uncut.
The sole new extra is a 2022 interview with Dante, who gives a brief but broad overview of the entire production, from inception to release, with a special emphasis on what it was like working for Roger Corman at New World Pictures. The rest of the archival extras are of varying vintages, with a few of them dating back to some of the DVD releases of Piranha, though all of them were included on the 2019 Shout! Blu-ray. The centerpiece is The Making of Piranha, a short but thoroughly entertaining documentary featuring interviews with Corman, Dante, Dick Miller, Melody Thomas Scott, and Belinda Balaski, as well as editor Mark Goldblatt, plus effects artists Phil Tippet, Peter Kuran, Robert Short, and Chris Walas. The tone is appropriately tongue-in-cheek, with voiceover narration that sounds like it was taken straight from a vintage New World trailer. That tone seems extends to the editing of the piece—after Goldblatt talks about optically flopping some shots of the fish, the interview segment with Corman that follows has been flopped from his previous appearance. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but let’s just pretend that it wasn’t.
The rest of the extras include a Trailers from Hell featuring Davison, as well as a vintage trailer, teaser, television spot, and radio spots. There’s also some silent Behind the Scenes Footage, accompanied by a self-deprecating commentary from Dante and Davison. (It’s all home movie footage shot by Davison, and Dante repeatedly teases him about his photographic skills.) The Additional Scenes from the TV Version of Piranha consists mostly of scene extensions that were used to pad out the film for television broadcast after any objectionable material had been removed. The highlight is some extra interplay between Dick Miller and Paul Bartel, and more of the two of them is always a welcome sight. The Bloopers and Outtakes aren’t quite as amusing as the reel from Dante’s The Howling, but there’s still a few interesting moments—plus, there’s more Miller and Bartel. Finally, the Poster and Still Gallery is a typical collection of posters, lobby cards, behind-the-scenes photos, and other promotional materials, but the real prize is Phil Tippet’s Behind-the-Scenes Photographs. It’s the only place to see some nice closeups of the piranha puppets, as well as some of his stop-motion animation models.
While that’s not necessarily an extensive collection of extras, it’s pretty much everything from all prior home video releases of Piranha, with the only exception being a different interview with Dante that was included on a German DVD from Koch Media. It’s also a case where the commentary tracks alone are worth their weight in gold, so quality easily trumps quantity here. Combine that with an impressive 4K presentation that transcends the limitations of the film’s original budget, and Shout’s UHD is unquestionably the definitive home video release of Piranha. It’s a must-purchase for fans of Joe Dante, Roger Corman, and of creative low-budget filmmaking in general.
It’s also whole lot of fun. Terror, horror, death. Film at 11:00.
- Stephen Bjork