CONTAINS SPOILERS. MUNCHIE MUNCHIE.
There are two ways of looking at Joe Dante's first solo directorial feature (after the co-directed Hollywood Boulevard). One is as a Roger Corman ripoff of (or more accurately a knowing, winking and unapologetic homage to) Jaws, which set the template for fish-based horror entertainment that still holds today with however many CGI shark and piranha movies are out there. Piranha, let's be fair, is no Jaws, but it's leagues above Shark Attack 3, Snakehead Terror, Mega Piranha and so on. The other is as the original to the recent splattery 3D reboots by Alexandre Aja and John Gulager: gory, trashy and crass exploitation movies that pile on the blood and bad taste, against which it looks almost tame.
But they don't have the charm of Dante's film, which is trashy and grisly in the seventies drive-in tradition rather than today's full-on grossout approach. It has an innocence rather than a cynicism, which smacks of a love of movie-making rather than a love of the big house they're going to buy with all the money. After a pair of hiking teens sneak into an apparently abandoned military base and get munched while taking a swim, Heather Menzies (first seen playing a shark-zapping video game) tries to track them down, enlisting the help of grouchy alcoholic Bradford Dillman. But in trying to recover the bodies, they drain the pool - which just happens to be full of mutant super-piranha developed by mad scientist Kevin McCarthy - into the river, where the water and the fish can flow straight to the children's summer camp and crooked businessman Dick Miller's aquatic theme park celebrating its grand opening....
It's a nice turn of the plot that heroine Menzies is the one who directly causes the problem and the carnage in the first place. And the last half hour or so is pretty much a Kids Versus Fish feeding frenzy as the piranhas attack the kiddies at Paul Bartel's summer camp and then Miller's tourist attraction, while Dillman and Menzies race not just against time, but against the uncooperative cops, army brass and military scientists (led by Barbara Steele - Dante movies are always a joy for film nerds) who either don't believe them or don't care. There's blood and gore aplenty, but it's never mean-spirited and sadistic like some of the OTT gags in Alexandre Aja's remake; it's fun and ghoulish and this is reflected in the 15 certificate. (Nor is there much in the way of swearing.)
Oddly, the film didn't do the traditional ripoff thing and come out close to its source - by the time it arrived they'd already released Jaws 2 and had also been beaten to cinemas by Ovidio Assonitis' ludicrous but amusing Tentacles. Piranha always looked great, especially given the paltry sum spent on it, and it looks even better on BluRay; it's genially gruesome entertainment with familiar faces of the era and a typically lush Pino Donaggio score. Coming complete with a Dante commentary, old home movies shot on set, a Making Of and the usual trailers and outtakes, it's well worth it.