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'Piranha 3D': Summer's biggest gross-out

The new horror movie has blood, bikinis, and a surprisingly illustrious history

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It’s 10:30 p.m. on the opening day of Comic-Con, and for horror fans who’ve gathered in San Diego, one of the coolest places to be is, well, not at Comic-Con. Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja has moved the panel discussion for his new killer-fish film from the convention center’s 6,500-capacity Hall H to a movie theater at a nearby mall. Why? Because the footage he’d intended to show had been deemed too graphic by the festival’s organizers. ”I was promoting Mirrors at Comic-Con two years ago and telling everyone Piranha 3D was going to deliver gore,” Aja says. And if you don’t give horror fans blood, they’re going to be out for yours.

Bob Weinstein, head of Dimension Films (which will release Piranha 3D in theaters on Aug. 20), swears that the venue switcheroo — and the resulting publicity — ”wasn’t planned.” But the affair has certainly brought attention to the extreme nature of the film, in which an underwater tremor sets free prehistoric piranhas to menace thousands of scantily clad spring-break revelers. It boasts stars of varying magnitudes, including Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, Jerry O’Connell, Eli Roth, Adam Scott, and Richard Dreyfuss (who cameos as his Matt Hooper character from Jaws in all but name). But no one has any doubt about the movie’s principal attraction. As a panel attendee named Ben puts it, ”I want carnage.”

And carnage he gets. The real mayhem begins with a shot of a derriere being chewed up by a piranha, and gets better — or worse, depending on your point of view — from there. Another female victim is sliced in half by a tension wire, and someone’s brains get splattered all over the body of a voluptuous blonde.

Aja’s film, neither a sequel nor a remake, marks the third big-screen Piranha movie, and the first in 28 years. The franchise is an oddly honorable one that has launched the careers of such respectable folks as Joe Dante, John Sayles, and James Cameron. Yet Piranha 3D‘s possibly record-breaking levels of blood — and cleavage — are very much in the tradition of the series. The poster for the original Piranha, released in 1978, featured a bikini-clad woman desperately swimming to escape the jaws of an outsize piscine monster. Piranha II: The Spawning, released in 1982, also mixed curvaceous eye candy — in the form of real-life Penthouse Pets — with ravenous fish that, this time around, had developed the ability to fly. Jon Davison, who produced the first movie, has seen most of the latest iteration and says it is surprisingly similar to his film. ”It’s just more crass,” he laughs. ”If such a thing were possible, they’ve done it!”

In the summer of 1975, the box office success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws changed Hollywood overnight. Suddenly, the B movie was elevated to A status. As one studio executive was quoted as saying after the movie became a hit, ”What was Jaws but an old [Roger] Corman monster-from-the-deep flick?”

The point did not go unnoticed by Corman himself. When producers Jeff Schechtman and Chako Van Leeuwen approached the exploitation king at New World Pictures with a script about killer piranhas, he was all ears. To direct the film, Corman recruited Joe Dante, who had toiled in the New World trailer department before codirecting the 1976 comedy Hollywood Boulevard. ”The Piranha script was a little underwhelming,” says Dante, who went on to direct Gremlins and Innerspace. ”The screenwriter hadn’t figured out what to do after people found out there were piranhas in the water. I said, ‘We should rewrite this.”’

That salvage job fell to John Sayles. Today, Sayles is a respected independent filmmaker (Eight Men Out, Lone Star) and script doctor. Back then, he was a little-known novelist, only too happy to cash a $10,000 check for a piranha flick. ”I tried to bring a bit of self-consciousness to it,” Sayles says. ”Some of the fun is: ‘Okay, this is a dollar-ninety-eight version of Jaws.”’ Still, there had to be gore and young, half-naked bodies. ”We had exploitation elements in spades,” says Dante. ”We killed a whole summer camp!” Legend has it, there was never enough gore for Corman, who, according to Piranha lore, would routinely call Dante and proclaim, ”More blood!” ”I think I did say that once,” recalls Corman. ”But I thought Joe was making a good picture.”

Audiences agreed. Piranha cost less than $1 million and grossed around $14 million. The film is now regarded as a cult classic, with a special-edition DVD out this month. For Piranha II, producers Van Leeuwen and Schechtman struck a deal with Warner Bros. and an Italian producer named Ovidio Assonitis. Assonitis had been wowed by the special-effects savvy of a young Corman protégé, and gave the man his first directing job. His name was James Cameron. Says Assonitis, ”He really wanted to do it badly.”

Lance Henriksen, who played a police chief, remembers being impressed by his director’s work ethic on the movie, which was shot in Jamaica. ”Jim spent a lot of time in his room making rubber fish,” he says. Assonitis was less enamored. After just a couple of weeks, he fired Cameron and finished the film himself. Cameron was unavailable to comment for this story, but last year he alleged on 60 Minutes that ”the producer wanted to take over the movie and direct it himself, especially the scenes with the Penthouse pinups. It was extremely sleazy.” Assonitis furiously denies this accusation. ”I don’t need to do this to get laid,” he says. He insists he fired Cameron because ”he did a lot of stupid things typical of a person that has not the experience.”

Assonitis did allow Cameron to help with the film’s editing in Rome, but Piranha II struggled at the box office. Still, Cameron would later admit that without Piranha II, he might never have dreamed up the creation that established him as a Hollywood giant. ”In March 1981, I lay in bed in a cheap hotel room in Rome with a high fever,” he recalled in an essay for the Terminator Collection video box set. ”I had been fired from my first directing job…and I was pissed off at the world…I dreamed (or nightmared) about machines with glowing red eyes who walked among us like men…. I should kiss the feet of the scumbags who were responsible for me being in that dark and depressing state of mind.”

About five years ago, Van Leeuwen approached 300 producer Mark Canton with a new Piranha script. Canton developed the project and partnered with Dimension. Then Aja came on board and suggested the reboot be made in 3-D, after getting excited about Cameron’s yet-to-be-released Avatar. Aja shot the film on and around Arizona’s Lake Havasu last summer, in heat that routinely exceeded 110 degrees. ”I was so unprepared,” says Elisabeth Shue (Cocktail), who plays a sheriff in the movie. ”I just decided I was actually a contestant on Survivor. That really helped.” Aja hoped to get Cameron and Dante to do cameos as boat captains, but it wasn’t to be. He did, however, receive an assist from his friend Quentin Tarantino. The scene in which a victim gets literally bitten in the ass? ”That was Quentin’s suggestion,” says Aja. ”He was really excited.”

Eli Roth, who plays the emcee of a wet T-shirt contest, argues that the movie may indeed be one for Guinness. ”I think it’s the most blood ever spilled in a horror film,” says the actor, who also directed Hostel and Cabin Fever. ”On Hostel, I think we had 500 gallons of blood. And when I was shooting [Piranha 3D], they were already up to 7,000 gallons. I don’t know what else to say.” Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), who plays a geologist, comes up with something: ”There was a tanker truck pumping blood into the lake all day. I don’t think anyone’s had the tanker truck of blood.”

Piranha remains a bloody and important franchise. Both Dimension and its parent corporation, The Weinstein Company, have had a patchy time at the box office over the past couple of years, and TWC cofounder Bob Weinstein would dearly love to have a ”new” franchise. ”Oh, please, you insult me!” deadpans the Dimension boss when the subject of a sequel to Piranha 3D is broached. ”That’s just my joke. A franchise would be great.” Weinstein can take heart from the words of another attendee at the Piranha 3D panel, a gentleman in his 40s: ”It delivers on all expectations,” says J.J. Abrams, whose Star Trek creature designer, Neville Page, worked on Piranha 3D. ”I thought it was awesome.”