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Film / Piranha

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This entry is for the original 1978 movie and its sequels. For the 2010 remake and its sequel, see Piranha 3D.

Piranha is a 1978 Horror Comedy B-Movie, directed by Joe Dante and written by director-to-be John Sayles, about a swarm of genetically-engineered killer piranhas.

Two teens break into an abandoned facility to engage in a spot of Skinny Dipping in the reservoir, and are promptly pulled under and torn to shreds. The next day, insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is dispatched to find them. Teaming up with local hillbilly Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), the two enter the facility themselves and inadvertently drain the critters engineered by resident Mad Scientist Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) as part of the now-defunct Operation Razorteeth (in which they would be unleashed into the riverways of North Vietnam) into the river; wherein they make themselves en route to a nearby summer camp where Grogan's daughter is staying, and ultimately the ocean...

In many respects a parody of Jaws, Universal Studios initially threatened to sue until Steven Spielberg saw it himself and loved it. In 1981, it got itself a sequel titled Piranha Part Two: The Spawning in which the piranhas fly; this film happens to be the directorial debut of James Cameron. Yes, that James Cameron.

The first film was remade as a TV movie in 1995, most notable for starring a young Mila Kunis and for reusing footage from the original film.

A more notable 3D remake, Piranha 3D, eventually arrived in summer 2010, directed by Alexandre Aja. Shifting the action to Lake Victoria (a fictionalized version of Lake Havasu, Arizona) and ditching the Government Conspiracy set-up in favour of a plot involving prehistoric versions of the eponymous fish, it was Bloodier and Gorier, Hotter and Sexier, and generally reveled in its own silliness. A sequel to the remake, Piranha 3DD, was released in 2012.

The original films and TV remake provide examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: Jack bleeds to death when the piranha attack his feet.
  • All for Nothing: The piranhas are implied to survive the toxic waste and reach the ocean.
  • Animal Motifs: Lots of sealife motifs are present, especially all over the resort.
  • Armies Are Evil: The U.S. Government is the one that funded "Operation Razorteeth", a biological weapon with absolutely no concept of discrimination between combatants and non-combatants, to be used during the Vietnam War and Colonel Waxman, the general that arrives to help deal with the released piranha, is a Suit with Vested Interests in the Jaws way. In the remake, the intent was for them to be used in the Cold War if it went hot.
  • Artistic License Biology: The piranha in the TV remake make various high-pitched squeals and shrieks, an impossibility for fish as they have no vocal chords.
  • Asshole Victim: Colonel Waxman is devoured by a swarm of piranha.
  • Attack of the Killer Whatever: Biologically-modified piranha.
  • Attack of the Town Festival: Actually an opening of the swim resort, but close enough.
  • Bioweapon Beast: The piranhas were made in a lab through controlled mutation and bioloical manipulation to be unleashed in rivers as an area denial weapon, during the Vietnam War in the original and the late Cold War in the remake.
  • B-Movie: Overall, the film carries its designation on its sleeve proudly. As well, The Monster That Challenged the World from 1957 appears on a scene.
  • Cassandra Truth: Partially because the government covers it up until the last possible second, and partially because it is hard to believe that an American river is full of genetically modified piranha, the heroes are believed to be insane or drunk (and put in jail for a short while).
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Lots. Being eaten by piranha with multiple takes of people being gnawed to the bone while they're still alive definitely falls under this.
  • Dartboard of Hate: Of the leader of the children's camp.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Paul. He has no problem pretending to be proud to be the town drunk, among other things.
  • Dead Star Walking: Keenan Wynn as Jack, who appears in only two scenes before his legs are devoured by the piranhas, and he bleeds to death.
  • Dead Hat Shot: After Colonel Waxman is devoured by the piranhas, his hat is shown sinking to the bottom of the river.
  • Death by Adaptation: In the original version of the film J.R. Randolph (the owner of the swim resort and one member of the "Suit with Vested Interests" subplot) ends the film standing in the middle the slaughterhouse that his resort became thanks to the piranha attack, looking despondent. In the 90s remake his role in the film finishes with him seeing said slaughter and, knowing he is utterly ruined, committing suicide.
  • Deep South: The events of the film happen in the fictional Lost River and surrounding county, apparently somewhere in Texas.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: A female scientist (played by Barbara Steele) says that the piranhas won't survive in salt water. Cue a beautiful dusk shot of the sea... and the piranhas' distinctive growling.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Maggie distracts a soldier so Paul can knock him out by flashing her breasts at him. The soldier looks to be very pleased by that... for a couple of seconds, at least.
  • Downer Ending: The piranha reach the ocean, and the world is definitely screwed.
  • Driven to Suicide: J.R. Randolph in the remake goes to his office and shoots himself in the head after the piranha kill or maim a large number of his resort's guests and ruined his business.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Jack is an alcoholic and this has completely destroyed his marriage, which drove him to drink more.
  • Eaten Alive: What the piranha do to their victims.
  • The End... Or Is It?: Both the original movie and TV remake end with Paul polluting the river and seemingly killing off all of the piranha, only for the last scene in both movies to imply that the piranhas have survived and made it to the ocean.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Two boats crash in the original film explodingly.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Jack's dog starts reacting shortly before Agony of the Feet occurs. When Maggie, Paul, and Hoak arrive on the scene, the dog is barking like crazy as if to warn them.
  • Eye Open: The first thing we see of the piranha in the entire movie is the close-up of the eye of one of them as it opens in response to the tank's water being disturbed by a girl in the prologue.
  • Fanservice: We get a lot of people in swimsuits, a close-up of Maggie's bare breasts when she flashes a soldier as a distraction so Paul can conk him from behind, and the girl of the skinny-dipping couple in the prologue accidentally goes full-frontal for a second before she pulls her panties back up as she rushes to take off her pants.
  • Film at 11: Said by the reporter at the end.
    Reporter: "Terror, horror, death. Film at eleven."
  • Flying Sea Food Special: The second film has flying piranha.
  • Gender Flip: The sole remaining scientist of Operation Razorteeth in original film's was Dr. Hoak, who was played by Kevin McCarthy. The scientist in the made-for-TV remake produced by Showtime was Dr. Leticia Barnes, played by Darleen Carr. Name and gender changes aside, both characters were exactly the same.
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: Genetically-engineered killer piranhas. 'Nuff said.
  • General Ripper: Colonel Waxman, who is implied to want to preserve the piranhas to use them as a weapon, which results in him keeping the situation quiet (of course, this is also motivated by him trying to prevent him from being bankrupted by an investment he made in a swim resort).
  • Gilligan Cut: Maggie is told to go to a dam to find missing teenagers:
    Maggie: Well come on, let's go.
    Paul: Go where?
    Maggie: You're taking me up there.
    Paul: Oh, no, I'm not.
    [Cut to him accompanying her to the dam]
  • Gorn: Lots of blood and bite marks everywhere (even on children).
  • Government Conspiracy: Operation Razorteeth.
  • Hazardous Water: Being full of piranha sure makes it that.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The piranhas make a noise similar to chatter or buzz-saws on most of the scenes they are in... which are them eating people.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Hoak jumps in the water he knows is infested to save a boy trapped on a sinking, capsized canoe.
  • Hotter and Sexier: The 1995 remake has two female characters (shortly before diving into the water and becoming piranha chow) doing full blown strip-tease sequences. Ironically, it loses the scene where Maggie flashes a soldier.
  • Made-for-TV Movie: The Remake, made by Showtime and produced by Corman. Attempted to make somewhat Darker and Edgier by removing the comedy scenes, but still almost a Shot for Shot Remake.
  • Never My Fault: Goes both ways on the raft, as Maggie and Paul chastise Hoak for continuing the experiment and thus keeping the little monsters alive all this time, but he's quick to point out they were the ones that released them from their isolated pool.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Nice job releasing the piranha from their completely isolated pool, hero. Jeez.
  • Operation: [Blank]: "Operation Razorteeth", the government project to genetically engineer piranha capable of living anywhere (even oceans) to use as a riverine denial weapon in The Vietnam War. Dr. Hoak reminisces the experimentation days by telling the heroes that the government spared absolutely no expense on the project... and as usual, when the project became unnecessary, they arrived and did clean-up work without bothering to see if it was actually thorough.
  • Piranha Problem: The advertisement even boasted about the fact that the monsters of this tale are multiple killer fish whereas Jaws has only the one shark.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: In the original movie Paul and Maggie manage to get rid of the piranha, but the river ends being polluted.
  • Sex Signals Death: Both versions of the film begin with a skinny-dipping couple getting eaten by the piranha. The climactic attack on the resort also shows a lot of swimmers getting antsy with each other during the "calm before the storm" montage. The Showtime remake adds a second skinny-dipper who gets eaten the night before the attack on the camp and both her and the couple of the beginning make a lot more clear that they want to have sex in the water.
  • Smug Snake: The female scientist constantly assumes that the piranha are incapable of solving problems or surviving the traps the military places for them, and her assurance that all the piranha are dead at the end (yeah, right) is delivered with a very smug little smile.
  • Stock Footage: The TV remake shamelessly re-uses the underwater shots from the original.
  • Suit with Vested Interests: Colonel Waxman, the leader of the military detachment that gets sent to deal with the piranha happens to be a major investor of the swim resort that is about to open, and because of this one of the biggest reasons he wishes to keep the situation quiet (even if this may get people killed) is to prevent tourists from being spooked away from the grand opening. He gets his Just Desserts when the piranha attack the resort's opening and the ship he's in gets overloaded with panicking tourists, tossing him into the water and eaten.
  • Totally Radical: Lots of this dialogue amongst the children in the remake.
  • Unabashed B-Movie Fan: In the original movie some guard watches The Monster That Challenged the World from 1957.
  • Weird Moon: The prologue happens on a night with a full moon... of the "looks so close that should be causing gravitational issues" kind.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Dr. Hoak has very little problem reminding Jack and Maggie that they were the ones that drained the tank where the piranha lived, releasing them into the river.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The film one-ups its otherwise more extreme remake in one significant department: namely, we see the piranha attack a summer camp full of children. Complete with multiple kids being dragged under and eaten (even if the scene isn't as bloody as the one at the resort). This would hardly be the last time that Joe Dante would put kids in peril in his movies.
  • You Say Tomato: Hoak and Mengers both pronounce piranha "piranYAH", while everyone else says "piranAH". Technically the former is the correct, original pronunciation, but the latter is so widespread that it's more common.