For this entry of RRR, we look at Joe Dante's seminal killer fish epic and how its new version stacks up to it. This is...
PIRANHA 3D (2010) VS. PIRANHA (1978)
PIRANHA (1978): Joe Dante's aquatic carnivore classic hits all the right notes delivering some exciting thrills on a low budget during a time when a little went a long way. A loving tribute to monster movies of old, this New World hit has it all--blood, gore, nudity, jokes, monsters and genre faves Barbara Steele and Kevin McCarthy among a stellar cast. This great late 70's creature feature has something many of today's horror movies lack--a little heart and soul.
PIRANHA 3D (2010): Alexander Aja's revamped tale of underwater horror is a faithful, if different rendition of the earlier picture. The film does pay homage to Dante's movie while devising its own identity hellbent on being as trashy as humanly possible. Aja has created the ultimate guy movie by taking 3D to places not yet explored--the mountainous regions of many pin up models and porn stars.
Notice the similarity in color and tone between posters for PIRANHA '78 (above) and PIRANHA 3D '10 (below). Review for the original PIRANHA here
The 1970's provided some of the best and most memorable killer critter movies themselves the natural progeny of the atomic creature features of the fabulous 50's. One of the most popular and profitable was Joe Dante's PIRANHA from 1978 (Corman's own remake in the mid 90's for the Showtime cable network is best forgotten). One of New World Pictures biggest box office hits, the movie has enjoyed a massive cult following over the years culminating in a much publicized 3D redux from Alexandra Aja. After taking seemingly forever to get made, fans got to see the results late this past August.
Judging from the trailer alone, it's apparent there's little connection to Dante's original aside from the primary location. There are similarities and also subtle homages (or winks) to the '78 original. If any director could do a remake right, it would be French director, Aja considering his impressive and highly entertaining remake of Wes Craven's THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006). Aja is obviously a fan of the Corman produced killer fish flick and manages to maintain that films tongue in cheek sensibility while modernizing his version in the process.
The plot itself is a veritable SyFy Channel hodgepodge with massive trainwreck potential, which may be why the film failed to draw bigger numbers than it did. So much similar fodder is found for free on cable that PIRANHA 3D could easily be passed off as a motion picture that cleverly and deceptively bypassed its destiny as a television premier and made the transition to a theatrical release... and that's what it looks like, but with much better special effects.
But one look at the storyline of PIRANHA '78 reveals far too many borrowed plot points that would quickly become tiresome in the new millennium's 'Nature Amok' movies. A secret military weapon, genetically engineered piranha, are accidentally let loose into the water supply of a riverside community. The new film changes this to have our fast moving fish as prehistoric nightmares unleashed from a seismic underwater disturbance. The original takes place over the course of several days while the bulk of the new movie takes place over a single day.
The ingenious puppets maneuvered by rods from the original are now replaced with that damnable CGI that has nearly ruined the handmade craftsmanship of many an FX artist. Still, two of the former founders of KNB, Nicotero and Berger are on hand to provide dozens upon dozens of extremely gory appliances. Their work is most evident during the big Spring Break blood bath sequence where hundreds of people are maimed, mutilated and devoured by the flesh eating fish, or even by self serving and simply scared individuals trying to save themselves. There appears to have been an intention to totally outdo the original with this chaotic bloodbath and the effects artists involved succeed with flying colors (mostly red).
Just like with his HILLS remake, Aja tips his hat to the New World original on several occasions that will be easily picked up on by fans of the first film. The first casualty during the extended Spring Break gore ghoulash is also a nod to the first lake victim from the original movie. It's a swimmer sitting inside an inner tube; it's a man in the '78 version and a woman in the '10 film. Another homage is the welcome addition of Richard Dreyfuss revisiting his Matt Hooper character from JAWS (1975). Not only is Dreyfuss decked out in the same attire, but he's singing the same song he and Scheider and Shaw were belting out aboard the Orca in the Spielberg classic. Unlike JAWS, though, Dreyfuss doesn't come away unscathed. Some of the shots in PIRANHA 3D echo those from the New World film and both sequences are played dead straight. Both films know when to deliver a chuckle and both know when to hammer its audience with some serious horror.
The humor in Dante's film is born out of the situation and the personality of the characters. Some of this humor is subtle nuances in the dialog and others are in-jokes that hearken back to those grand creature features of old. For the new version, the humor is much more "primitive" utilizing goofily gruesome sight gags, or AMERICAN PIE styled shenanigans. Examples of this are the underwater nude ballet with classical music accompaniment and a brief fight between two piranha over a severed penis. The former is an amazingly accomplished piece of trash that will likely go down in cinema history as a milestone in three dimensional appreciation. Any future films with 3D scenes dedicated to the beauty of the female form will have a hard act to follow with the tasteful collage of scantily clad and inebriated ladies on display in Aja's picture. The latter bit recalls a similar scene of things to do with severed male members in STREET TRASH (1987), another filth flick of the lowest common denominator.
Above: Paul Bartel saddened over the lifeless body of a child in PIRANHA (1978); Insert: PIRANHA 3D (2010)
The violence, while extreme in both movies, is a little bit darker in the Corman produced version. Children aren't above being devoured while victims in Aja's movie are either soulless pricks, or individuals there to fatten the gore quotient. The ending with the character of Jake rescuing his girlfriend mirrors the ending of Dante's movie (in that film, Bradford Dillman ties a rope around his waist to enter a submerged building in an effort to pollute the piranha to death with a toxic substance) although it defies logic that this kid would go under the boat to get to the girl as opposed to simply going down into the waterlogged cabin. Still, movies seldom succumb to logic and if this scene adhered to it, it would be far less dramatic.
Even the new films soundtrack cover mimics the DVD cover for the Antonio Margheriti piranha movie, KILLER FISH aka THE DEADLY TREASURE OF THE PIRANHA (1978); review of the film here
Did I enjoy PIRANHA 3D? Hell yes. It was possibly the most eagerly anticipated movie for me aside from that brain cell barren atrocity that was CLASH OF THE TITANS 2010. Aja's movie delivered on its promise. Did I think it was better than the Roger Corman production? Not really. Maybe it's down to nostalgia, but that picture has a unique charm indigenous to Dante's other movies; not to mention it has a dynamite score from Pino Donaggio and also Dick Miller as the seedy lake resort owner. The new movie doesn't have one, nor does it have much in the way of character development aside from one or two people.
Yet again, PIRANHA 3D imitates another killer fish flick. Here, you'll notice similarities between Cameron's PIRANHA 2 (1981) poster artwork (above) and that of the new 3D movie (below)
But like many other genre product these days, audiences don't want characters, they want lots of mindless blood and gore and sex, the equivalent to the high calorie popcorn and candy they indulge before and during the show. On that level, PIRANHA 3D (2010) makes the gory grade. Now what we really need is a remake of James Cameron's underrated PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING (1981) in 3D. Maybe the King of the World can come down from his TITANIC ego trip long enough to make that one happen.