What the Hell Happened to Joe Dante?

Joe Dante

Joe Dante worked his way from cartoonist, to production assistant, to editor, all the way to director in his own right. His fondness for the old-school and homages to bygone eras of filmmaking inform most of his work, of which there is quite alot. Over his career, he has shifted gears without a hitch from adult-oriented work to become a name synonymous with clever family fun. Those flowers have wilted however, as he now finds himself increasingly involved in TV direction and non-theatrical films.

What the hell happened?

Joe Dante was born in the historic New Jersey town of Morristown, but grew up in nearby Livingston (same home town as Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame). His father was a professional golfer, but young Dante’s interest did not lie on the links, but rather in linking together drawings in rapid sequence: cartoons.

His love of cartoons, and their Golden Era has seeped into his films, and even served as the basis for a few of them.


Dante’s career began to shift into high gear when he became a trusted assistant of the B-movie icon Roger Corman, the man behind pulpy, campy films typically chock-full of gore and violence. His string of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations preserve all the descriptive terror of the horror master’s writings.

The “Corman Film School”, much like the “Frat Pack”, is a semi-mythical collective of directors and actors that got their start under Corman’s wing. Directors in the Corman stable include Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Curtis Hanson, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, and our man Dante.

The Movie Orgy - 1968

The Movie Orgy – 1968

Dante’s first work behind the camera was a seven-hour long film school (real film school) mashup of his commercials, short films, and trailers shot while a student. It actually toured across America, screening at college campuses under the sponsorship of Schlitz beer, something I assume you had to chug down a few times to make it through what was called The Movie Orgy.

The Movie Orgy only technically counts. What really was Dante’s directorial debut was an ultra low-budget film co-directed by Allan Arkush.

The exploitative crime thriller was made as a result of a bet between Corman and soon-to-be frequent Paul Verhoeven collaborator Jon Davison to make the lowest-ever budgeted film for New World pictures. The budget: $54,000.

Hollywood Boulevard - 1976

Hollywood Boulevard – 1976

Not as impressive as Robert Rodriguez’s $7,000 El Mariachi, but certainly a feat in its own right. As was also the case with El Mariachi and  Paranormal Activity, the cost to distribute the film was many, many times the budget. With that noted, the movie was a minor success. The LA Times found it “hilarious”, though not for someone searching for something “elegant or high tone”. Fair ’nuff.

Next up for Dante, in his first sole directorial credit, was the famous, recently-remade horror satire, Piranha.

Set at an idyllic forested river resort, the film sees the resort-goers menaced by mutant piranhas, relics of an abandoned Cold War experiment. The fish are known as razorteeth, and my do they live up to this moniker. The film is certainly more than just Corman-style blood-n-bone though, as it explores horror tropes with surprising deftness, even joshing the myriad movies of Corman himself. Critics responded well, the movie performed very well relative to its low-budget stature at the box office, and Steven Spielberg even called it “the best of the Jaws” ripoffs. So far, so good for Dante.

Next up for him was another co-credit with Allan Arkush, the teen musical comedy Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

The movie involves the band The Ramones, playing themselves, inspiring a group of high school students to push back against their strict and callous principal. Standard teen movie stuff. Originally, Cheap Trick was to be the movie’s band, but, due to scheduling, they said I Can’t Take It to the role offered.

With Dante and Arkush again splitting duty, the movie was received tepidly both critically and commercially.

Next: The Howling and Twilight Zone


Posted on May 27, 2016, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Director and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Great article, oakleya77.

    I have been a Joe Dante fan from way back. I remember catching Piranha on TV as a kid. It was one of those experiences where I had no expectations. I had never heard of the movie so I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be much better than all the other Jaws rip-offs.

    Dante movies often feel like less than the sum of their parts. They are filled with clever bits and references, but those don’t always add up to a satisfying movie.

    I saw both of his Masters of Horror episodes and the zombie one, Homecoming, was so over-the-top, club you on the head political that I was rolling my eyes despite agreeing with the message. The Screwfly Solution, on the other hand, was crazy dark.


  2. Phil Coghill

    I remember going to see Looney Tunes with my uncle. I think there was only one other person at the screening. Needless to say I wasn’t surprised when I found out it was a flop.


  3. Very interesting What the Hell Happened. Funnily enough, I used to be obsessed with Dante and I still love some of his movies.


  4. jeffthewildman

    I saw Looney Tunes BIA opening weekend and loved it. But when I mentioned it to most people, a good majority had never heard of it. Proof that it wasn’t promoted that well.

    Excellent article on Dante. The Amzon women part reminded em to get started on my entry on John Landis.


  5. Newsboy caps are racist? And who DOESN’T eat fried chicken?


  6. I love AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON. I think it has some hilarious parts in it, plus some great cameos, and some rather nice nudity thrown into the mix. A few years ago, in a conversation about Dante on the TCM Movie Morlocks’ page, I extolled the virtues of AWOTM and received a response from Dante thanking me. That made my week.

    I encourage all of the readers to give AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON a try if they haven’t already seen it. On a side note: Phil Spector victim Lana Clarkson is one of the beautiful women of the title.


  7. Really good read; I’ve enjoyed what I’ve viewed of Joe Dante’s work (haven’t seen much of his television work, though it looks like he has a knack for it) “Piranha”, “The Howling” the two “Gremlins” films (always have liked the sequel a little more than the original), “The ‘Burbs”, “Matinee” and “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” are favorites of mine, as well as his anthology work in “Twilight Zone: the Movie” and “Amazon Women on the Moon”. One thing about Dante’s work that I’ve noticed is that I never found it boring.


    • I was really happy with this article. Oakleya77 did a terrific job. I added the bit on Legends of Tomorrow just to bring things up to modern day (as in that episode aired just a couple months ago). But other than that, I barely made any changes. It was that solid. I can’t wait to see what Oakley cooks up next.

      Dante’s a lot like us. He’s clearly a geeky movie fan. He makes the kinds of movies most of us would make if given the opportunity.


      • I’d say that’s an accurate statement on Dante; he’s dished out plenty of fan service over the years.


      • I just have to say though, that episode of Legends of Tomorrow was my least favorite of the series so far. It didn’t have anything to do with the direction, but the writing. I don’t think he co-wrote the episode, so Joe is still okay on that front.


        • I feel like Legends of Tomorrow spent its first season finding its footing. It’s still not entirely sure what it wants to be. Night of the Hawks was an oddball episode that almost felt like it was from a different show. A horror show. A shoe Joe Dante would create. I’d watch that show, but as an episode in a super hero/tie travel series, it was a strange detour.


      • Who Is Steven Spielberg’s Best Protégé?

        Joe Dante started his directorial career with low-budget horror films like Piranha and The Howling, which were modest hits in 1978 and 1981, respectively. He really struck gold by directing 1984’s Gremlins, which managed to combine horror with irreverent humor, creating a bizarrely entertaining combination. Unfortunately, he was never able to recreate the runaway success of that film.

        He tried with Explorers (with young River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke) in 1985, Innerspace (a wonderful sci-fi film starring Martin Short and Dennis Quaid) in 1987, The ‘Burbs (a terrible comedy starring Tom Hanks at a low point in his career) in 1989, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch in 1990. He tried a few more times before retreating to television and more horror films.


      • The ‘Burbs (1989): Joe Dante’s salute to boredom in America (

        Join us for our review of 1989’s The ‘Burbs, from back before Tom Hanks was Big Bank Hanks, and he mostly starred in comedies. What would you do if some weird Germans moved into your neighborhood and shortly after, the old man next door disappeared? Hanks deals with all that, along with his two oddball neighbors driving him crazy. New year, new memes, on Mondo Cool Movie Dudes!

        Join us next time for Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters!


  8. Very nice article! I learned a lot about Joe, whom, frankly, I had known very little about! You tied it all together.

    Two small things:

    I would be sure to include a date for each movie. It helps orient the reader.
    The Police Squad show is a true masterpiece! I think it would have a cult following even without the movies.


  9. Brennan Morsette

    I am little surprised you didn’t mention the Trailers from Hell website. That’s really been his most significant output in the last ten years right there.


  10. Joe Dante Turned Down Directing Batman in the ’80s

    The 1980s Batman movie you never saw could have had Joe Dante in the director’s chair.

    Tom Mankiewicz’s Batman sceenplay is one of the greatest unmade superhero movies of all time. The man who gave Superman: The Movie’s legendarily difficult early drafts the polish that helped make it the timeless classic that it is (and who also wrote, co-wrote, or re-wrote the screenplays for James Bond adventures like Live and Let Die, Diamonds are Forever, and The Spy Who Loved Me) took a pass at Batman in the early 1980s, and one of the possibilities to direct it was Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins, Innerspace…oh, you know who he is!).

    Dante passed on the movie, and it took several more years to actually get Batman to the big screen, by which point the project had changed hands so many times that Tom Mankiewicz’s script was a thing of the distant past. Sam Hamm’s script for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie bore no resemblance to Mankiewicz’s, which was an extended origin story with similar pacing to the opening hour of Superman: The Movie (complete with a “first night on the job” sequence for Batman), multiple villains (both Joker and Penguin are present), and absurd, Bond-esque set pieces for the climax.

    So imagine what that movie would look like had it been directed by Joe Dante. Dante was approached for the director’s job, and he was initially interested, but ultimately turned the job down. “It was very outlandish,” Dante says of Mankiewicz’s Batman script, which he correctly describes as “not Chris Nolan-dark” but “darker than the [1960s Adam West] TV version.”

    But he did give it a little thought, particularly who he would have wanted to play The Joker. “I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie,” Dante said. “And for whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards The Joker than towards Batman. And I actually woke up one night and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this movie—I’m more interested in The Joker than I am in Batman, and that’s not the way it should be.'” Dante turned the job down shortly after, admitting, “I think I was not the right guy to do the movie.”

    His John Lithgow comments put the timeline on this right around 1984, perhaps when he was at the peak of his powers with Gremlins, Explorers, Innerspace, and the wonderful The ‘Burbs. For your “Lithgow as The Joker” image, keep in mind that he turned in a gloriously bonkers performance as Dr. Emilio Lizardo in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension in 1984.

    Dante has no regrets about it, though. “I don’t regret not doing Batman, in the sense that I’m not sure what it would have ended up being like. But I certainly can’t say it was a major career-booster, my decision not to make it.”


  11. Movie Matchups: Ghostbusters (1984) vs. Gremlins

    Career Boosters

    Ghostbusters is a classic that launched numerous careers.We’ll start by talking about the creative people responsible for these films. Director Ivan Reitman was coming off a string of huge hits with National Lampoon’s Animal House, Meatballs, and Stripes, the latter two of which starred a very young Bill Murray. Ghostbusters served as a further showcase of Murray’s and Reitman’s talents, as well as that of actors Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis who also penned the script. It was not the only highlight in any of their careers, but it definitely served as a boost that helped just about everyone involved further their film careers.

    Chris Columbus wrote and Joe Dante directed 1984’s Gremlins.Director Joe Dante was also on a roll after making 1979’s Piranha and 1981’s The Howling. He teamed up with executive producer Steven Spielberg and a young screenwriter named Chris Columbus to make Gremlins. It featured a cast of mostly unknowns, except for maybe Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates who had appeared together in Fast Times at Ridgemont High two years earlier. Gremlins became a surprise hit. However, Dante’s next few films (Explorers, Innerspace, and The ‘Burbs) proved to be box-office duds. Neither he nor most of his actors were able to recapture the success of Gremlins. It proved to be the pinnacle of their careers.


  12. Bad Movies with Great Music: Explorers

    The Film’s Shortcomings

    Explorers fails to give us something at the start to hook our attention and make us want to see what happens next. The whole movie just feels like a strange combination of ideas and events with no overall goal or theme. This movie brings up school bullies, but it doesn’t have a satisfying purpose or comeuppance for them. The hero wants to get a pretty girl’s attention, but the two don’t have any scenes together to establish their relationship.

    Nothing is at stake in this movie. Does the girl of the hero’s dreams have a boyfriend or parents keeping the two apart? No, she’s a blank slate waiting for him to make a move. What if the kids don’t make it to outer space? It doesn’t really matter. Are they running out of time to get to space? Sort of. A cop does track them down, but it’s unclear if he truly wants to stop them.

    Even the main character is disappointed and disgusted by these boring aliens.Do the aliens pose a threat or want to help humanity? No. They are the biggest disappointment in the film. They’re just kids who stole their dad’s “car” and were doing all of this as a prank. Why bother sending Earth children elaborate visions and bringing them light years away from their planet if the aliens are just going to sit around telling lame jokes and being mind-numbingly boring? I know, this is supposed to parody old sci-fi films that took aliens way too seriously. But all this movie does is go in the opposite direction and not take things seriously enough. Even the kids who are sitting around watching the aliens do their comedy routine can’t help but voice their dissatisfaction with the whole thing. This is why the aliens brought them here? If this is all we can expect from “intelligent” extra-terrestrial life, count me out.


  13. 30 years ago, Amazon Women On The Moon

    30 years ago the cult classic premiered, and now the conclusion with no further commercial interruption.

    “Man, there ain’t no f***ing Thelma here!”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: