3.5 / 5 Stars
Joe Dante's 1978 feature Piranha is a clever B-movie rip-off of Jaws. It tells the story of a private investigator (Heather Menzies) hired to search for two missing campers who enlists the aide of an alcoholic outdoorsman (Bradford Dillman). When they stumble upon a deserted military lab, they accidentally release a mutant form of piranha into the river. Together they race to stop the piranha from reaching a summer camp and a big tourist resort.
This long out of print score previously available on LP only finally gets its premiere on CD. Pino Donaggio's work here is very similar in tone to his score to Joe Dante's The Howling. It's serious horror music for a movie that takes itself anything but seriously. It's also why it works so well. By keeping his cues dramatic and helping tell the story on screen, Donaggio allows director Dante room to have fun with his characters and situations. The dialogue and the characters' actions are funny; not the story.
The music is mix of suspense and action cues which is what you'd expect from a horror movie. What's surprising about Donaggio's score is that he doesn't shy away from the tragic when the movie deals with the aftermath of the piranha attacks. With blood red waters and gruesome looking victims, the score strikes the perfect tone while avoiding being overly maudlin or ironic. At times the music echoes John Williams score for Jaws. No, it doesn't have a memorable piranha theme, but there is an unmistakable piranha motif every time they attack. There's a bit of lighthearted guitar strumming recalling the idylls of summer camp in "Summer Dreams". There's also the typical fanfare-type music when depicting families on vacation at a big resort in "Aquarena/Homonculus" which is interestingly combined with a cue where Menzies & Dillman snoop through the military lab. Mysterious strings lay the foundation for quirky 'biological lab sounds'.
One of the highlights is a cue called "Nightmare in the Sun/Betsy's Death". The fast paced music matches the speed at which the piranha chow down on the young kids in their inner tubes. It's punctuated by the death of one of the main supporting characters, Betsy, the head camp counselor. As her inner tube is ripped to shreds, she tries to reach out to the safety of a nearby raft. She doesn't make it. We see her plunging into the watery depths with dozens of piranhas nibbling on her. It's a grand death cue that signals her end with tragic finality.
Varese has done a wonderful job in bringing this score to CD. Unfortunately, you can't get it anymore. Released as a limited edition Club release, Varese sold out of its 1,000 copies within 3 days. It's difficult to recommend something which is no longer available, but if you're a fan of the movie or Donaggio, I'd suggest doing what you can to acquire a copy. It's a very enjoyable listen.