Though often erroneously considered to be a protégé of Steven Spielberg, director Joe Dante actually emerged from the low-budget world of Roger Corman to become a sly practitioner of witty genre films and television shows that were obvious by-products of a youth spent watching movies. After working as an editor on several Corman projects like "Student Teachers" (1974) and "Grand Theft Auto" (1977), Dante made his directorial debut with the camp classic, "Piranha" (1978), a satirical take on "Jaws" (1975) that served as a calling card for more mainstream Hollywood movies. He made more of a cult splash with "The Howling" (1981), a comic horror take on the classic werewolf tale that featured then groundbreaking special effects. Dante had arguably his greatest success with "Gremlins" (1984), a landmark comedy-horror film that became a monster box office hit that managed to spawn a 1990 sequel and several unworthy imitators. From there, Dante's career hit a downward slope with "Explorers" (1985), "Amazon Women on the Moon" (1987) and the darkly comic satire "The 'Burbs" (1989). Though he showed exuberant life with "Matinee" (1993), the critically hailed coming-of-age tale was dismissed by moviegoers. Following a brief sojourn into television, Dante returned to the silver screen with the overly violent "Small Soldier" (1998), followed by the rather tame "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" (2003). Though he failed to repeat the success of "Gremlins" later in his career, Dante remained a stylish director of genre pictures who unabashedly displayed his love and obsession with film.
Born on Nov. 28, 1946 in Livingston, NJ, Dante was raised in a rather typical suburban neighborhood in a household where his father was a professional golfer. When he was seven, however, Dante spent a year in the hospital after contracting polio, where he spent his vast idle time recovering from the dreaded disease by drawing cartoons. Later in life, he intended to turn his hobby into a career, leading him to study at the Philadelphia College of Art. But Dante was discouraged from becoming a cartoonist and instead steered his ambitions toward film, which was something of a mild obsession for him growing up. After serving as a reviewer and managing editor of the trade publication, Film Bulletin, Dante moved to Los Angeles and began working in advertising, only to switch gears and ply his filmmaking craft with famed low-budget producer, Roger Corman, in 1974. Starting with "Student Teachers" (1974), Dante made movie trailers for Corman and soon graduated to editor, cutting his first movie, "The Arena" (1974), for director Steve Carver. He stepped up to co-direct his first movie, "Hollywood Boulevard" (1976), with Allan Arkush, a clever action comedy the pair made for a scant $60,000 - reportedly one of the cheapest movies ever made at Corman's low-budget factory. Though full of discarded footage from other productions, the movie established many qualities that filled his later work.
Following an editing job on Ron Howard's directorial debut, "Grand Theft Auto" (1977), Dante became a first-time solo director as well on "Piranha" (1978), a clever parody of "Jaws" (1975) scripted by John Sayles from his own story. Though he had known that "Jaws" director Steven Spielberg was a fan of the film, Dante found out years later that Spielberg had in fact used his considerable clout to prevent Universal Pictures from blocking the film out of the studio's fear that it would compete with "Jaws 2" (1978). Thanks to Spielberg's behind-the-scenes efforts, Dante was able to launch a more mainstream career. Having captured Hollywood's attention, Dante was offered a job to direct "Orca II" for producer Dino DeLaurentiis, but the project was ultimately canceled. He was also attached to direct the National Lampoon spoof "Jaws: 3 - People: 0," but left the project after excessive studio meddling. He moved on to write the story for Arkush's cult classic, "Rock 'n' Roll High School" (1979), before directing his second creature feature, "The Howling" (1981). Again working off a script written by Sayles, Dante crafted a deft take on the classic werewolf theme that was at once both horrifyingly real - thanks to groundbreaking makeup - and bleakly comical.
After "The Howling" enjoyed some critical praise and a cult-like following, Dante moved over to television to direct episodes of the short-lived comedy "Police Squad!" (ABC, 1982) before returning to the big screen to helm the third sequence in "Twilight Zone: The Movie" (1983), which featured segments directed by Steven Spielberg, John Landis and George Miller. It was Spielberg, acting as executive producer, who brought Dante aboard for "Gremlins" (1984), a rather light horror comedy based on the script from another of Spielberg's acolytes, Chris Columbus. Undoubtedly presenting the darker side of the "E.T." (1982) coin, "Gremlins" focused on an all-American small town that suddenly becomes overrun by destructive green creatures that rapidly multiply and wreck havoc on the once sleepy community. Made on a small budget of $11 million, "Gremlins" was a monster success, pulling in almost $150 million in domestic box office and making it arguably Dante's biggest hit. But Dante was unable to build off this success, choosing instead to direct the rather standard kiddie sci-fi adventure, "Explorers" (1985), starring youngsters Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix.
Dante followed up with two episodes of Spielberg's anthology TV series, "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-87), before helming the visually innovative sci-fi comedy "Innerspace" (1987), which starred Dennis Quaid as a Navy pilot who is shrunken down to molecular size and accidentally inserted into the body of a nerdy hypochondriac (Martin Short). He next was one of five directors on the absurd "Amazon Women on the Moon" (1987), a surreal satire in the vein of "Kentucky Fried Movie" (1977) that featured numerous comedy sketches unconnected with one another. In the film, Dante was responsible for the skits "Hairlooming," "Roast Your Loved One" and "Bullshit or Not." Meanwhile, Dante returned to solo directing duties with "The 'Burbs" (1989), a dark comedy starring Tom Hanks as the perfect father and husband who is driven to extremes after a weird family moves next door. With his career taking a bit of a slide, Dante tried to recapture past glory with "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990), a rather substandard follow-up to the 1984 original that did manage to pull back on the violence and gore of its predecessor to make for a more kid-friendly experience. Still, mixed critical reviews and a box office performance that paled in comparison to the first film marked a clear low point in Dante's career.
The director next served as a creative consultant as well as helmed episodes of the subversive teen fantasy series, "Eerie, Indiana" (NBC, 1991-92), which followed a young lad (Omri Katz) and his best friend (Justin Shenkarow), as they investigate how truly strange their small desolate home town really is. Returning to features after the show's early demise, Dante directed the overlooked coming-of-age drama, "Matinee" (1993), which starred John Goodman as a William Castle-like impresario who stages a gimmick-filled premiere for his latest schlock horror film in Florida, right as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis reaches a boiling point. Despite strong critical reviews, Dante's fine effort with "Matinee" went largely ignored by audiences. With his film career decidedly uncertain, Dante turned to the small screen with "Runaway Daughters" (Showtime, 1994), a loose remake of a 1957 theatrical film about a young pregnant girl (Julie Bowen) going on the road with two friends (Holly Fields and Jenny Lewis) to find her boyfriend (Paul Rudd) who is about to join the U.S. Navy. He followed with "The Second Civil War" (HBO, 1997), an ahead-of-its-time satire about the anti-immigration Governor of Idaho (Beau Bridges), who closes his boarders and orders the National Guard to fight when he learns a planeload of Pakistani orphans are headed his way.
After a five-year absence from the big screen, Dante returned to feature by helming "Small Soldiers" (1998), a somewhat violent children's film that featured action figures who are implanted with state-of-the-art military technology that causes them to develop personalities of their own. While the film contained references to Dante's favorite director James Whale, many deemed the carnage on screen too realistic for its target audience. In many ways, the director was repeating himself, having already presented some of the same sight gags in his "Gremlins" movies. Following another five-year film hiatus, Dante merged to bring Bugs Bunny and the beloved Looney Tunes stable of cartoon icons to the big screen with "Looney Tunes: Back In Action" (2003). But the vibrant mix of animation and live action, which offered a healthy dose of madcap energy and some decent comedy bits, lacked the fresh, subversive nature that inhabited the original Warner Bros. cartoon series. Following episodes of the anthology horror series "Masters of Horror" (Showtime, 2005-07) and 'CSI: NY" (CBS, 2004- ), Dante was one of five directors on the independently funded horror anthology "Trapped Ashes" (2008). He next directed "The Hole" (2009), a 3-D childhood thriller about three friends (Chris Massoglia, Nathan Gamble and Haley Bennett) who find a trapdoor in a basement that leads them into the depths where they confront their deepest fears.
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Served as a reviewer and managing editor for FILM BULLETIN, a trade magazine (dates approximate)
Moved to California with future producer Jon Davison, Jonathan Kaplan and some other people recommended by Martin Scorsese
Began working in film advertising
Started working at Roger Corman's New World Pictures making trailers; first assignment "Student Teachers"
First feature credit, editor of "The Arena", a New World period actioner directed by Steve Carver
Co-directing debut (with Allan Arkush), "Hollywood Boulevard"
Served as editor on Ron Howard's "Grand Theft Auto"
Appeared as an interview subject in the documentary "Roger Corman: Hollywood's Wild Angel"
Solo directing debut, "Piranha"
Co-wrote (with Arkush) story for "Rock 'n' Roll High School"
Directed critical breakthrough feature, "The Howling"
Feature acting debut, "The Slumber Party Massacre"
Helmed episodes of "Police Squad!", a spoof of cop shows from producer-writers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker
Directed "It's a Good Life", a segment of "Twilight Zone - The Movie"; first collaborations with producer-directors Steven Spielberg and John Landis
Directed commercial breakthrough feature, "Gremlins"; produced by Steven Spielberg
Directed "The Shadow Man", an episode on the revival of "The Twilight Zone"
Helmed an episode of "Amazing Stories", a Spielberg-produced fantasy anthology series, entitled "Boo" starring Eddie Bracken and scripted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; directed another episode the following season
Provided assistance for "The Puppetoon Movie", a compilation film of George Pal's animated shorts from the 1940s, directed by Arnold Leibovit
Appeared as an interview subject and provided assistance for "The Fantasy Film World of George Pal", a documentary directed by Arnold Leibovit about the innovative and influential producer-director
Helmed the sci-fi comedy "Innerspace", about a Naval officer who participates in an experiment wherein he is miniaturized and then is accidentally injected into the body of an unsuspecting civilian
Helmed the sequel "Gremlins 2: The New Batch"; first film under the Renfield banner
Appeared as an interview subject on "Naked Hollywood", a British documentary series broadcast on A&E
Received a creator's credit (shared with Arkush) on the direct-to-video sequel "Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever"
Credited as "Face on the Cutting Room Floor" in John Landis' Sylvester Stallone vehicle, "Oscar"
Appeared as an interview subject in "The Magical World of Chuck Jones", a documentary cum compilation film devoted to the celebrated animation director
Performed a cameo as a lab assistant in "Stephen King's Sleepwalkers"
Returned to films after a three-year absence with "Matinee", a semi-autobiographical look at the movie showmen (like William Castle) of the 1960s
Delivered a cameo as a jailer in Landis' "Beverly Hills Cop III"
TV-movie directing debut, "Runaway Daughters", a remake of a 1957 American International Pictures release, shown as part of Showtime's "Rebel Highway" series
Appeared as an interview subject on "The Roger Corman Special" on the Sci-Fi Channel
Directed the HBO satire "The Second Civil War"
Returned to features at in the director's chair of "Small Soldiers", a somewhat violent tale of action figures that mistakenly are implanted with state-of-the-art military technology and develop minds of their own