Operation: Razorteeth, a US Military germ warfare project, genetically engineered a strain of cunning piranhas that have now been released into the waterways of Lost River Lake. Paul Grogan teams up with Maggie McKeown to stop the flesh-eating predators from feasting on the campers and tourists downriver.   A political whitewash thwarts their attempts, however, and these vicious piranhas take a bite out of nearly every swimmer in their path.

Bloody Rundown

This Roger Corman production was directed by his former protégé Joe Dante who would later direct The Howling (1981) and Gremlins (1984). Considered a rip-off of Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), this preposterous B-horror bloody mess was surprisingly well received by critics. Corman regards the production as his “homage to Jaws,” and even Spielberg greatly admires the film. Written by first-time screenwriter John Sayles, who also wrote the script for The Howling, this foreboding environmental tale condemns the corruption of authority, war, and capitalism with a mixture of ludicrous humor and gore.

The great paradox of the film is that the town loser serves as the film’s hero while society’s venerated serves as its antagonists. Thus, the genetically-engineered fish are not the only piranhas. The authority figures, specifically, Mr. Dumont, Colonel Waxman, and Buck Gardner, played by Paul Bartel, Bruce Gordon, and Dick Miller, respectively, are the greedy and power hungry predators of the film. (Alas, for these bureaucrats, the resulting blood is just incidental.)

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The film’s unlikely hero, Paul Grogan, played by Bradford Dillman, is the ultimate underdog: He’s an unemployed drunk whose bitter divorce drove him into seclusion. The heroine, Maggie McKeown, played by Heather Menzies, is an aggressive yet foolish amateur investigator.

The film also costars two horror notables: Kevin McCarthy and “The Queen of All Scream Queens,” otherwise known as Barbara Steele. McCarthy earnestly played Dr. Robert Hoak, the ingenious yet negligent creator of the piranhas. (It should be noted that McCarthy also portrayed Dr. Miles J. Bennell in both the 1956 and 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

pir 20With steel-like conviction, Barbara Steele portrayed Dr. Mengers. Her first foray into horror can be seen in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).

The kills are savage; not even children are off-limits, but the film absolutely hilarious. Don’t let the humorous spoof fool you though. After watching Piranha, now “You’ll” really “never go in the water again.”

 

Die-Anne’s Diatribe

This film is hysterical and takes a bite out of The Man. Yet, despite the absurdity of killer piranhas, I am now compelled to never swim in a river again.

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Plot Mutilator

While hiking through the mountains, teenagers Barbara and David come upon a chain-linked fence with signs stating “No Trespassing” and “Military Test Sight Restricted Area.” David wants to sneak into the supposedly abandoned area, goading Barbara with “a little law breaking will do you good.” When they discover the site’s industrial pool, Barbara wants to wash off “So it won’t be so funky in that sleeping bag.” (That, in my opinion, is the most gag-worthy concept of the entire film.) Despite David’s reluctance to swim in a pool that he believes may be a sewage treatment facility, the duo skinny dips. They are bitten then eaten to death by unforeseen underwater creatures. A light switches on in a nearby building as a man steps out to survey the pool.

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Maggie McKeown plays a video game of Jaws at the airport. Earl Lyon summons her to the gate; he has hired her to find the two missing teenagers. Although a novice, she flies off alone to handle the investigation.

Jack and his dog, Brandy, deliver Scotch, Gin, Bourbon, and Tequila to Paul Grogan, a reclusive mountain man. Paul considers his fellow mountain man, Jack, as the “seventh Calvary” since he delivers all his liquor.

pir9 - Copy - CopyWith her rented jeep, Maggie barrels up the mountain to Paul’s cabin. She reveals that she has been hired by a skip tracing company to find the missing teenagers and requests his help. Paul rudely tells her that if the teenagers drowned they’d be swept up at the damn. Maggie is insistent that he helps with her investigation. With his flask in hand, Paul then guides her to the military test site, which closed five years ago. After breaking through the locked gates, Maggie finds Barbara’s necklace near the pool. They then venture into the nearby lab, which is complete with formaldehyde jars of strange specimens. After finding the teenagers’ hiking gear, Maggie is determined to drain the pool in search for their drowned bodies. A man appears and tries to stop her. A fight ensues rendering the man unconscious.

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While Paul and Maggie search for remains in the empty pool, the disoriented man flees in the rented jeep, eventually crashing it. Paul and Maggie bring him back to the cabin, tie him up, and demand an explanation to the missing teenagers. They continue to prod and interrupt him, yet he is too delirious to explain.

With Maggie’s urging, Paul reveals that not only did his wife leave him, but he is also an unemployed father. Evidently, Maggie is attracted to drunk, unemployed divorcees. (This gives hope to so many down-and-outers as Maggie is very pretty.)

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Without a car to take the injured man to the hospital the next morning, they depart downriver on Paul’s handmade raft of logs that are lashed with rope. Paul made this raft with his daughter, Suzie, who is at sleep-away camp downriver.

At camp, Suzie is comforted by her sweet-natured counselor, Laura Dickinson. Suzie is afraid of the river and is averse to partaking in any of the mandatory swim competitions. Mean-spirited camp leader, Mr. Dumont, interrupts their heart-to-heart to bring Dickinson a letter from that “same boy.” Mr. Dumont sternly states that Suzie has been “skunked again” as she has no mail. He then belittles Suzie about her anxiety. Laura explains to Mr. Dumont that Suzie only fears the fish in the river.

pir5Dumont harshly crows: “People eat fish, Grogan. Fish don’t eat people.” Laura reassures Mr. Dumont that Suzie has excelled in handicrafts. This only emboldens Dumont’s bullying as he derides handicrafts since they do not require “intestinal fortitude.”

With his feet hanging off the dock into the river, shitfaced Jack is fishing with his dog, Brandy, who is behaving oddly. Like all dogs, Brandy has a sixth sense; but, the dog’s barks fail to deter the unforeseen creatures from eating Jack’s legs. (The distinct underwater swooshing sound that the audience hears is the surefire warning that these predators are about to devour.)

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Meanwhile, Paul, Maggie, and their captive are in route on the makeshift raft. The captive reveals that his name Dr. Robert Hoak and the river is now “filled with Carnviorous fish, Pirahna.” Maggie is stupefied, yet Dr. Hoak reminds her that she was the stupid one who “let them in when” she “drained the pond at the test site.” Thus, these unforeseen hungry river creatures are piranha.

The raft comes upon Brandy barking on Jack’s blood-drenched dock. Maggie and Paul disembark to investigate. They find that Jack, who had dragged himself from the dock, had “bled to death.” Paul decides to bury Jack knowing his friend would never want to be “buried in town.”

Betsy, another sweet-natured counselor, bonds with river-phobic Suzie. She fashions Suzie with a fake knee wound enabling her to be excused from dictator Dumont’s arduous swim races.   

pirAn endearing father and son fishing trip turns into a deadly backsplash. While the dad reaches his arm into the water to untangle a net, the piranhas engulf his entire body, capsizing the canoe. The horrified boy manages to climb and float on top to safety. (It is at this scene that I realize the creators of Piranha are indeed slightly demented, biting through mainstream taboo.)

While slowly treading downriver, Maggie enquires if the military paid for Dr. Hoak’s creation. The scientist divulges: “Of course they paid. Whether it’s germ warfare, the bomb, chemical warfare, there’s plenty of money, special agencies. They pay a lot better than they do in private research.” With these fish, he continues, “it’s a matter of genetics, radiation, selective breeding–They called it Operation: Razor teeth.”

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In order “to destroy the river systems of the north Vietnamese,” their “goal was to develop a strain of this killer fish that could survive in cold water and then breed at an accelerated rate.” When the war ended, the military poisoned the piranha; however, a few mutants survived, and then multiplied. Dr. Hoak finds it unfathomable that Maggie is blaming him for this disaster considering that she is a fault for releasing the piranhas.

They then come upon the boy is who is about to drown. Dr. Hoak redeems himself by jumping into the piranha-infested water to save him. As Dr. Hoak manages to transport the boy onto the raft, the creatures he created eat him alive. (The raft reaches the boy before the capsized canoe sinks; so, the doctor’s rescue efforts are entirely unnecessary.) The pirahnas trail the raft and eat through the lashes holding the logs together. Finally, the raft reaches the shore and Paul runs to the damn to stop it from opening. Once the damn opens, the piranha will be released into the lakes where both the campers and tourists swim.

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The military arrives to survey the situation, eventually poisoning the piranha. Paul tries to convince Colonel Waxman that the schools will swim upriver through a fork and engulf the lakes once they realize they are being poisoned. The Colonel and scientist Dr. Mengers are dubious. Dr. Mengers insists the piranhas have “neither the intelligence nor the motivation” to bypass an obstacle. She continues that this clandestine project needs to remain so, and “Some things are more important than a few people’s lives,” as “there will be other wars.”

pir12Since Paul and Maggie are the only two civilians who know about Operation: Razorteeth, the Colonel places them under guard.  They manage to distract the guard, with Maggie flashing him, and take off in an army jeep. From a pay phone, Grogan calls Dumont to warn him about the piranha. Dumont refuses to allow Grogan to speak with his daughter, and yells, “you’re drunk…Sober up Grogan, and fly right.” Paul and Maggie continue on to the camp, but are pulled over by a cop who takes them into custody. The two are held in neighboring cells; but, with Maggie’s resourceful tactics, the two escape the “pokey” and steal a patrol car. None of the authority figures believe them; the ones that do, try to silence them.

Colonel Waxman phones Buck Gardner to warn him about the panic Paul and Maggie may stir. Buck Gardner assures the Colonel that he will warn his staff to disregard any stories about piranhas. He then assures the Colonel that “nobody knows about” his “investment” into the Buck Gardner’s Aquarena Development Corporation.

pir24The tormenting Mr. Dumont gathers his campers for the inner-tube race. He demands that Suzie partake in the race, but she hides while he is distracted. As the race is underway, the piranhas whirl under the inner tubes and chew on the children. Suzie’s vague premonition rings true: Chaos in the river ensues. A piranha jumps out of the water and bites the deserving Dumont in the face. Suzie heroically boards a raft to save the wounded. She attempts to save Betsey, but sadly the counselor is overtaken by the piranhas and eaten alive. Thankfully, Grogan and Maggie arrive.

pir3While Grogan rescues the remaining swimmers, Maggie calls Buck Gardner to warn him of the piranhas. Her call is met with contempt. Aside from the many injured, the piranhas left one child and one counselor dead; and, now they are in route to Aquarena Springs Resort. Before Grogan flees to the resort to stop the piranhas, he exchanges eye contact with Mr. Dumont, now broken and defeated.

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Colonel Waxman and Dr. Mengers arrive at the resort and join in the ceremonious festivities with Buck Gardner and the elite, including a senator. The local news has been warned of possible pranks regarding piranhas; so, the trio feels immune to the possible scandal. They all board a water float while tourists sunbath (one reads Moby Dick), swim, scuba dive, fish, and water ski. Sure enough, the schools of piranha engulf the waters and ferociously feast on human flesh. Buck Gardner’s assistant, Whitney, also tries to warn him about “The piranhas…” He negligently retorts, “What about the goddamn piranhas?” She tells him, “They’re eating the guests, sir.” But, the piranhas not only eat the guests and the tourists, they also eat Colonel Waxman.

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Chaos, once again, ensues. Grogan arrives and realizes that these piranhas also have the capacity to survive in saltwater and will soon be headed to the ocean. Maggie then arrives, and the two drive a speed boat to a smelting plant where they plan to unleash chemical waste to annihilate the piranhas. With a rope tied from the boat to his waist, Grogan courageously dives into the water to open the valves containing the waste. He instructs Maggie to speed off at the count of 100 as that is how long he is able to hold his breath. The piranhas attack him as he opens the valves, and Maggie speeds off at the 100 count, towing him to safety.

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With Grogan severely injured, they return to the resort, now occupied with medical teams and the press. A reporter gravely states: “Terror, horror, death. Film at eleven.” Dr. Mengers, however, minimizes the danger in her televised interview, stating “there’s nothing left to fear.” On the contrary, Dr. Mengers, there’s still much left to fear—as exhibited in Piranha II: The Spawning.

Moral of the story: Swim only in chlorinated waters. And for the love of all things sacred: never trust the government.

Deadly Details

Director ∞ Joe Dante
Producers ∞ Roger Corman, Jon Davison, and Chako van Leeuwen
Screenwriters ∞ John Sayles
Based on story by ∞ John Sayles and Richard Robinson
Music ∞ Pino Donaggio
Cinematographer ∞ Jamie Anderson
Editor ∞ Joe Dante and Mark Goldblatt
Sound Department ∞ Richard L. Anderson, Teresa Eckton,
     David Lewis Yewdall, Joel Goldsmith, Anthony Santa Croce,
     Velcie Yewdall, et al.
Costume ∞ Linda Pearl
Makeup Department ∞ Rob Bottin and Vincent Prentice
Special Effects ∞ Jon Berg, Douglas Barnett, Dave Morton,
     Robert Short, and Chris Walas
Visual Effects ∞ Adam Beckett, Bill Hedge, Peter Kuran,
     Pat O’Neill, Rick Taylor, Phil Tippett, et al.
Art Department ∞ Kathleen Hughes, Kevin Hughes (any relation?), and
     Tim Doughten (no relation?)
Art Direction ∞ Bill Mellin and Kerry Mellin  
Set Decoration ∞ Jeff Ayers  
Distributors ∞ New World Pictures and United Artists (for the world)
Budget ∞ $770,000
Release Date ∞ August 1978
Running time ∞ 95 minutes
Country ∞ United States
Language ∞ English
 
Cast ∞
Bradford Dillman as Paul Grogan
Heather Menzies as Maggie McKeown
Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Robert Hoak
Keenan Wynn as Jack
Dick Miller as Buck Gardner
Barbara Steele as Dr. Mengers
Belinda Balaski as Betsy
Melody Thomas as Laura Dickinson
Bruce Gordon as Colonel Waxman
Barry Brown as Trooper
Paul Bartel as Mr. Dumont
Shannon Collins as Suzie Grogan
Shawn Nelson as Whitney
Richard Deacon as Earl Lyon
Janie Squire as Barbara Randolph
Roger Richman as David
Bill Smillie as Jailer
Guich Koock as TV Pitchman
Jack Pauleson as Boy in Canoe
Eric Henshaw as Father in Canoe
Robert Vinson as Soldier
Virginia Dunnam as Girl
Hill Farnsworth as Water-skier
Bruce Barbour as Man in Boat
Robyn Ray as Screaming Woman
Mike Sullivan as Dam Guard
Jack Cardwell as Brandy