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Cult Classics Revisited: KILLER FISH (1979)

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KILLER FISH
(UK/Italy/Brazil/US - 1979)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Michael Rogers. Cast: Lee Majors, Karen Black, Margaux Hemingway, Marisa Berenson, James Franciscus, Gary Collins, Anthony Steffen, Dan Pastorini, Roy Brocksmith, Frank Pesce, Charlie Guardino, Fabio Sabag, Chico Arago, Jorge Cherques. (PG, 101 mins)

A hybrid of heist thriller, disaster movie, and JAWS ripoff, KILLER FISH is a perfect example of the kind of international co-production insanity that only could've happened in the 1970s. Produced by the UK's Sir Lew Grade, Italy's Carlo Ponti, the Brazilian company Filmar do Brasil, and American TV power couple Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, the film was designed as a star vehicle for Lee Majors, whose successful five-season run on ABC's THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN had just come to a close in 1978. Majors, a veteran of several past TV hits like THE BIG VALLEY, THE VIRGINIAN, and OWEN MARSHALL, COUNSELOR AT LAW, was trying to parlay his television success into a big-screen career and from 1978 to 1981, starred in several B-movies of usually dubious quality, while at the same time turning down an offer from Paramount to co-star with Nick Nolte in NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979). Majors' role--a hard-partying, good ol' boy star quarterback--went to Mac Davis and the film is now regarded by many as the definitive serious football film. While NORTH DALLAS FORTY was a box office hit and opened to almost universal acclaim, Majors was making KILLER FISH and other films like THE NORSEMAN (1978), STEEL (1980), AGENCY (1981), and THE LAST CHASE (1981), all of which were out of theaters in a week, and by the end of 1981, he was back on ABC for another series, THE FALL GUY, which ran until 1986.




Of those five films Majors made before going back to TV, KILLER FISH has become a legitimate cult film, primarily for its loony plot and its unusual cast, and that it's directed by legendary Eurocult journeyman Antonio Margheriti, using his usual "Anthony M. Dawson" pseudonym.  Margheriti was just coming off his NYC-shot heist thriller THE SQUEEZE and brought that film's suddenly slumming co-star Karen Black along to Brazil for another heist plot. Shot entirely in some stunningly beautiful locations, it's very likely that it was the idea of a working vacation in Rio that lured much of KILLER FISH's cast, which had an unusually large number of American actors for such trashy European-ish fare. While the Italian/West German co-production THE SQUEEZE is probably Margheriti's most American-looking film thanks to some effective location work in some grimy parts of Manhattan and just over the river in New Jersey, KILLER FISH is right alongside the US/Spanish blaxploitation western TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975) and the rainforest-set Italian RAMBO ripoff INDIO (1989) as the most American-feeling of Margheriti's vast output. Much effort was made to package KILLER FISH like a typical Hollywood disaster movie, with only one Italian actor in the cast (former DJANGO Anthony Steffen, best known for 1971's THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE), several Americans, including model Margaux Hemingway, part-time actor and soon-to-be talk show and Miss America host Gary Collins and, as usual in these types of movies, an off-season football star--in this case, Houston Oilers QB Dan Pastorini.  KILLER FISH also sported its own Maureen McGovern-mandated disaster movie theme song, "Winner Takes All," performed by flash-in-the-pan disco queen Amii Stewart, who had a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated hit in early 1979 with "Knock on Wood."


KILLER FISH is great cheesy entertainment, but other than the outstanding location shooting by cinematographer Alberto Spagnoli, it can barely compete with the budget-conscious likes of Roger Corman, let alone the expensive product that Master of Disaster Irwin Allen was cranking out. The main reason is that Margheriti was too attached to his use of outdated miniatures, which he would be until the end of his career. Sloppy rearscreen projection work is one thing, but toy trains and model dams that look like Lionel factory irregulars aren't going to cut the mustard. Of course, now these laughable effects are part of KILLER FISH's charm, but Margheriti's continued insistence on using techniques that were antiquated in the 1960s would consistently undermine his work into the 1990s. Margheriti was adept at action scenes and shootouts and could stage an explosion as impressively as any director who ever stepped on to a movie set, but it's hard to get into the excitement of a car chase in something like CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984) when you can clearly see in a few shots that it's a toy car with an immobile plastic action figure in the driver's seat. For all the big names involved in the financing, KILLER FISH often looks ridiculously cheap. It's more likely that most of money went to the actors, their hotel bills, their bar tabs, and their per diems than toward anything that ended up on the screen. KILLER FISH is so lacking in funds for special effects and spectacle that Ponti had Margheriti open it with a factory explosion lifted completely from THE SQUEEZE.


In Brazil, former mine executive and fanatical backgammon enthusiast Paul Diller (James Franciscus), pushed out of the company after a heart attack, has hired a team of professional thieves led by Lasky (Majors) to break into a secure part of the mine and make off with a large stash of diamonds and emeralds. Helping Lasky is Diller's girlfriend Kate (Black), and when the team stashes the diamonds in a weighed-down metal container at the bottom of a lake, tensions start to mount when Kate suggests they wait 60 days for the cops to give up looking for them or the loot. That doesn't sit well with Lasky, who's conspired with a pair of sibling mooks, Warren (Frank Pesce) and Lloyd (Charlie Guardino) to replace the container in the lake with another and make off with the goods. When Lloyd dives into the lake to retrieve the container, he's promptly devoured by something unseen, which Warren thinks is "a giant snake." Warren talks their getaway driver Hans (Pastorini) into diving into the lake to check things, and when he starts being eaten in a similar fashion, Warren falls in trying to rescue him and they're both dead. It seems that months before pulling off the heist, Diller introduced an especially vicious strain of piranha into the lake to breed ("There's probably tens of thousands of them by now," he sneers), completely altering the ecosystem of a major tourist destination just in case some criminal co-conspirators got greedy. When one of cinema's least convincing hurricanes hits and destroys a nearby dam, the piranha are let loose in the open water and almost everyone in the cast who hasn't been eaten ends up on a small, damaged, dead-in-the-water charter boat captained by rugged local sea salt Max (Steffen, dubbed by Ted Rusoff), who's acting as a guide for a fashion shoot for supermodel Gabrielle (Margaux Hemingway), her manager Ann (Marisa Berenson), and portly, flamboyant photographer Ollie (Roy Brocksmith). As an untold number of hungry piranha surround the boat, Diller--after a backgammon showdown with Lasky--is willing to kill everyone if it means getting away and keeping his diamonds, and it's up to playboy pilot Tom (Collins) to rescue the stranded boaters.


The climax is quite hilarious at times, with Majors' Lasky and Steffen's Max indulging in heroics so stupid that you might even think they deserve to be piranha chow. Franciscus is appropriately dastardly and Black has one very convincing scene where her character is having a convulsing panic attack as she's being pulled out of the water after nearly being eaten. There's also a strange sexual undercurrent to the film, with Kate growing intensely jealous over Lasky's pre-mayhem resort romance with Gabrielle, and Gabrielle subtly suggesting to Lasky that they have a threesome with the bisexual Ollie. In addition, Margheriti and screenwriter Michael Rogers (probably a pseudonym for a committee of Italian writers, as this is "Rogers"' only IMDb credit) spend far too much time on Tom trying to get in Ann's pants. There's too many characters in KILLER FISH, with Tom and Ann's flirting, Ollie functioning as dual stereotypes of the raging queen and comic-relief fat guy, and even more extraneous characters turning up on the boat with no purpose at all. When KILLER FISH focuses on the heist, the piranha, and the janky special effects--the piranha swimming shots are priceless--it's a lot of fun.


Arriving not long after the definitive piranha movie, Joe Dante's PIRANHA (1978), KILLER FISH opened in US theaters in December 1979 and promptly bombed. It played on NBC a few times starting in 1981, under the title DEADLY TREASURE OF THE PIRANHA, and was released on VHS in 1986 as KILLER FISH, but has only now been released on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Scorpion Releasing/Kino Lorber. The 1.78 transfer is pristine as can be, and the sole bonus feature is a nearly-hour-long informal dinner discussion between Frank Pesce and cult filmmaker William Lustig (MANIAC, MANIAC COP), who's known Pesce for decades and worked as a production assistant on the American location shooting of Margheriti's THE SQUEEZE. Pesce found work as an extra in THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and was hanging around the set of ROCKY (1976), lucking into acting after winning $6 million in the New York state lottery in 1976. He's appeared in many movies and TV shows over the years, usually B or straight-to-video titles, but he's occasionally turned up in big movies--he's the bolting cigarette buyer at the beginning of BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and returned to further incur Axel Foley's wrath in BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and he played gangsters in MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and DONNIE BRASCO (1997). His story was chronicled in the 1991 film 29TH STREET, with Anthony LaPaglia as Pesce, and the film produced and based on a story by Pesce and Franciscus, who became good friends after working together on KILLER FISH (Franciscus retired from acting in 1985 and died of emphysema at just 57 in 1991, a few months before 29TH STREET's release). Pesce and Lustig get sidetracked, as old friends do, and don't start talking about KILLER FISH until midway through the segment, but Pesce's got some priceless stories about his and Lustig's late friend Joe Spinell, and about working as a stand-in for Robert De Niro on TAXI DRIVER (1976), and Roy Scheider on MARATHON MAN (1976) and in the NYC scenes in SORCERER (1977). He also talks about Black trying to convert him to Scientology and tells a great story about some KILLER FISH cast and crew members going to a popular Rio disco, where Pesce's working his magic on an attractive blonde and was about to make his move when a bat flew into his hair, startling him and prompting him to scream loudly. The blonde immediately lost interest and Pesce later saw her leaving with Majors, who was "with her" for the rest of the shoot. Regarding Majors and his then-wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Pesce recalls that it was during the filming of KILLER FISH that Majors got word that Fawcett was involved with Ryan O'Neal, or as Pesce eloquently puts it, "Lee found out that whatsisname, Ryan O'Neal, was bangin' Farrah."





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