Of all the people to chomp their way to filmmaking under Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, few rose to meet the restless workmanlike production style quite like Joe Dante. His first solo feature, 1978’s Piranha, still stands as a minor miracle, perfectly showcasing Dante’s resourceful and playful style with the kind of schlocky terror that these genre films pumped into the drive-in circuit of the 1970s. Shout Factory upgrades their previous releases of Piranha to 4K Ultra HD with a two-disc package that compiles previous supplements and adds a new interview with Dante. The new 2160p transfer (aided by Dolby Vision) impresses with a beautiful, filmic representation of the source that funnily reveals the production’s limitations with the uptick in resolution. This release comes Recommended!
Joe Dante and Roger Corman were truly a match made in hell. The former was a huge fan of the latter before they started working together, plus both men acted as conduits for the kind of American ephemera that would pave their way to success. Both possess the sort of tireless creativity that’s required to make something from nothing, and that becomes immediately apparent in Dante’s debut film that he co-directed with Allan Arkush, Hollywood Boulevard. The film was created as a bet between Corman and producer Jon Davison to make the cheapest film ever for New World Pictures, but they truly underestimated Dante’s capability to tell a story by cutting together various sources and newly filmed footage. There began a creative partnership that would send Dante barreling toward the studio system.
If you’re familiar with the film at all, then you know that 1978’s Piranha was produced on a budget of $660,000 and was a co-production between United Artists and Corman’s New World Pictures. The idea was simple, by Corman’s standards: cash in on the craze of Jaws rip-offs. But on the first day of filming, Corman slashed the effects budget and sent the production scrambling to really make something from nothing. Filming had begun and they hadn’t quite figured out how to film the titular flesh-eating fish. In comes Dante’s tireless creative mind and a crack team of effects artists working day in and day out to create rubber fish that look realistic enough. The result is sometimes shoddy but always fun; a minor triumph elevated by John Sayles’ wry and satirical script.
When a young couple mysteriously disappears after skinny dipping in the pool at an abandoned military compound, a determined young journalist named Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is dispatched to find out why. In her travels, she meets drunkard Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who aids her investigation unwillingly. Soon, the duo uncovers that genetically-engineered fish from a defunct military project is at risk of being let loose upon a local summer watering hole. Oh, and there’s a local political figure who tries to downplay the danger and becomes a constant comedic gag, like Jaws!
Piranha has to dance around the bigger sequences due to the limited budget, but all that exposition gets an added boost by John Sayles. Sayles was no stranger to writing for B-movies and he was among the genre’s greatest mavericks, effortlessly injecting political humor into these creature features in a way that makes you laugh and gives the whacked-out proceedings some added dramatic weight. And when you get to the final sequence of bloodletting with Dick Miller’s mayor running around hectically trying to stop it all, the film coalesces into an expert mix of schlocky terror and white-knuckle suspense.
Simply put, Piranha is a gem from that golden era of Corman productions and rewards with each viewing. Where you think the production may drop the ball on biting off more than it can chew, it constantly surprises with resourcefulness and a quick, sharp wit.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Swim quickly to shore before the fish get you with Piranha’s two-disc (BD-100 for the 4K and BD-50 for the Blu-ray) release that comes in the standard Viva Elite black case and offers reversible artwork, as well as a slipcover for a limited-time. Both discs boot up to a standard menu screen with options to play the film, explore bonus features, select scenes, choose audio options and add subtitles. Pino Donaggio’s classic score for the film plays over both menu screens.
To properly display Piranha in all of its glory, you have to expect its cheap production style to look a bit harsh when blown up to 2160p. We saw with Shout’s 2019 Blu-ray release of Piranha that some terrific bold primaries could be taken from the source, so much so that it may have been too bold. But with the new 2022 4K restoration, the picture is pushed just a bit cooler, bringing the absolute most out of the shadows and black levels available. What’s more, it looks like this new restoration has better defined color in small details, like clothing and interiors. Even when optical effects result in degeneration of grain and offer some harsher details around the shape of characters, it’s all resolved quite nicely.
Piranha’s new 4K transfer also perfectly encapsulates the benefits of upgrading a film of this nature to 4K. The grain is much better resolved in 2160p than in 1080p, revealing small details you’d most likely miss out on in 1080p because of the reduced resolution. This may not be the night-and-day difference some may be looking for compared to previous releases, but I can say with the utmost certainty that it’s an accurate and loyal representation of the source material. The Dolby Vision HDR layer is applied delicately as well, stopping short of blowing out highlights and crushing blacks. This is a really great 2160p transfer that fans of the film are sure to enjoy.
From what I can tell, Piranha comes with the same DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono track as the 2019 Blu-ray release, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The track is very clean given the source limitations and handles infrequent moments of damage/hiss very well. Dialogue is always clear and that egregious foley sound created for the feeding piranhas sounds great and full-throated despite the limited range.
Shout Factory has upgraded Piranha for the last time (maybe?) with a release that carries over all supplements from their previous releases and adds a new 8-minute interview with Joe Dante. In the interview, Dante reflects briefly on absconding to the woods to shoot this movie only to discover his budget has been slashed. What I can imagine was a really chaotic time on set was only made better by Dante’s agility. Although there’s only one new supplement to speak for, the previously produced featurettes are still great fun to dig through. In particular, there’s a blooper where genre legend Barbara Steele says “fish, fuck!” that's quite hilarious.
There were many knock-offs made in the wake of Jaws' phenomenal box office success, but there is only one made by Joe Dante and Roger Corman! Piranha bares its teeth in beautiful 4K with a new two-disc package from Scream Factory that not only improves upon previous releases of the film, but stands tall as the definitive presentation. While new supplements are a bit sparse, the previously released material is well worth sinking your teeth into. The new 2160p Dolby Vision transfer is the real star here and is sure to make both Dante and Corman fans happier than ever. Piranha 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray comes Recommended!