Although known chiefly for Gremlins (1984) and Innerspace (1987), the two films he directed for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in the 1980s, Joe Dante is far from being simply a ‘director for hire’ or a carbon copy of Spielberg. Despite his films sharing superficial similarities with Spielberg’s work (the suburban settings disrupted by fantastic events, the childlike protagonists at the centre of the story), Dante is one of the most distinctive mainstream filmmakers of the 1980s. With his jack in the box visual style, in-joke movie references and satirical swipes at American institutions (principally suburban Middle America and the US military), Dante’s films are great fun. Like Quentin Tarantino, Dante’s love of movies—particularly B-movies—oozes off the screen and you get the sense that he wants to share that love with his audience as well. In addition to alluding to dozens of classic movies from his youth, Dante’s films frequently feature actors that he grew up watching in science fiction and horror films. Veterans like Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy and Kenneth Tobey frequently pop up, and film buffs and Dante fans smile in recognition whenever these regulars—or other familiar faces from Dante’s stock company, like Belinda Balaski, Robert Picardo or Wendy Schaal—turn up in one of his films.
Dante originally wanted to be a cartoonist and went to art school to pursue his ambition, but eventually he switched to film. Dante has always been a huge movie buff, writing reviews for Castle of Frankenstein magazine in the early 1960s and later Film Bulletin, from 1969–1974. His first film, made with his friend Jon Davison, was a seven-hour movie marathon, consisting of assorted clips from films, commercials and trailers, and titled—appropriately—The Movie Orgy (1968). Dante got his start in the movie business at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures where he cut trailers. He moved on to editing films and eventually received his first directing credit (co-directing with Allan Arkush) on Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a homage/parody of ultra low budget movies, using stock footage from numerous films. Although restricted by time and money, working for Corman gave Dante invaluable moviemaking experience that has held him in good stead. Dante’s first solo directorial effort, and first collaboration with John Sayles, was Piranha (1978). Although the film simultaneously pays homage to, and rips off, Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), Piranha is a smart, funny, inventive movie, featuring a mass of killer fish that threaten a local holiday resort. The ensuing mayhem is later revealed to be caused by the army, a recurring motif in Dante’s work.
Dante re-teamed with Sayles for the werewolf movie The Howling (1981), which brought Dante to the attention of critics, audiences and mainstream Hollywood. Like An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981), The Howling featured incredible special effects (courtesy of Rob Bottin) and mixed offbeat humour with grisly horror, as a TV reporter (Dee Wallace) is drawn into a bizarre plot that brings her into contact with a colony of werewolves. As in many Dante films, events seen on television in the film reflect and comment on the action in the film itself, as seen in the climatic cut from a werewolf transformation on TV to a dog food commercial, and in an earlier scene involving a character being killed by a werewolf, which is intercut with a cartoon that reflects the victim’s predicament.
The success of The Howling established Dante as a talented director, capable of handling complex special effects and able to tell a good story, while simultaneously stamping the material with his own sensibilities. Impressed with The Howling, Steven Spielberg hired Dante to direct one of the segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), starting an on-off collaboration that has lasted—so far—for over twenty years. Four directors—respectively, John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Dante and George Miller—helmed one of the four Twilight Zone segments, which were taken from—and inspired by—the original television show. The resulting film only worked intermittently, and the production was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding a serious accident that occurred during the filming of Landis’s segment.
Taken from the original Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life, Dante’s segment displays the director’s wild sense of humour and dazzling visual inventiveness. Expressionistic sets, a kaleidoscope of light and colour, and an assortment of make up and optical effects are all put to terrific use as schoolteacher Helen (Kathleen Quinlan) comes to the aid of a small boy named Anthony (Jeremy Licht) and finds herself trapped in his house with his eccentric family, and imprisoned in a surrealistic nightmare. Again, the television is ever present, a force for good or ill and a background detail that echoes events in the film. Dante appears to have an ambivalent attitude towards television. He has worked for it many times, sometimes enjoying the experience and taking advantage of the format (Eerie Indiana, 1991), at other times, frustrated by the limitations it has imposed upon him (with both The Second Civil War  and his work for Night Visions  suffering from post-production interference). In Dante’s Twilight Zone segment, the TV is everywhere. When Helen enters the bar at the film’s opening, the TV is on and is disrupted by Anthony, who is playing a video game—appropriately, a war game—on an arcade machine. Later, we see that a cartoon house on TV looks the same as Anthony’s house. The film is full of memorable images, alternately funny (the Tasmanian Devil-like creature that erupts from a TV) and horrific (Anthony’s sister with her mouth permanently sealed shut, and stuck silently in front of a TV). Bar the sentimental ending (which feels entirely out of tone with the preceding events, seeming like a soft Spielbergian touch rather than the more apocalyptic ending that the original story possessed), this is one of Dante’s most interesting and underrated films.
Gremlins is still Dante’s most commercially successful and well-known movie to date, featuring the eponymous creatures gleefully chomping through the peaceful suburban town of Kingston Falls. Packed to the gills with in-jokes, regular cameos by Dante’s stock company, and a Jerry Goldsmith score (a creative partnership that began on Twilight Zone: The Movie and continues to this day), the film is gleefully irreverent and anarchic. However, along with its success, Gremlins also courted controversy, due to its violence, in particular the now famous ‘Gremlins in the kitchen’ scene, which features a live Gremlin exploding in a microwave and another being killed in a blender. It was this, along with the strong violence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984), that led the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to introduce the PG-13 film rating. Gremlins has also stuck with Dante throughout his career, in the sense that he has mainly been considered a fantasy filmmaker in the Spielberg vein. Even when he has tried to branch off in new directions to explore non-fantastical subjects, in films like The ‘burbs (1989) or Matinee (1993), he has still been tied to Gremlins. Nevertheless the success of Gremlins established Dante as a Hollywood director, and he has continued to make quirky, subversive, unique and above all entertaining films in the mainstream Hollywood industry.
Dante’s followed up Gremlins with Explorers (1985), a film with echoes of Spielberg’s early work, but with Dante’s typically skewed perspective on the world. Though a troubled production, I feel it is one of Dante’s best. The premise of three kids building their own spaceship is terrific, Goldsmith contributes another wonderful score and, despite the wealth of humour, there is a real sense of pathos, particularly with Dick Miller’s helicopter pilot, the most rounded and heartfelt character that he has ever played in a Dante movie. In addition, Robert Picardo is back and doing double duties here. Not only does he act as the alien Wak, he is also the lead actor in the film-within-a-film called Starkiller, which plays at the local drive in. The anti war sentiment surfaces once again, when the aliens explain why they will not visit Earth, and play clips from a plethora of 1950s films that show the army killing various aliens to prove their point. Unfortunately, Explorers was plagued by script problems and a truncated production schedule. Dante was unhappy with the experience and when the film was released, it was an undeserved financial failure and was dismissed by many critics. However, this is a personal favourite and I believe that it is ripe for reappraisal.
After the commercial and artistic disappointment of Explorers, Dante directed Innerspace, re-teaming with Spielberg on what seemed like a safer commercial proposition. Unfortunately, this hugely enjoyable comedy/fantasy (which plays like a comic update of Fantastic Voyage [Richard Fleischer, 1966]) failed to find an audience, possibly—and ironically—because of good test screenings, which convinced the studio that word of mouth would sell the film. They cut back on advertising and failed to market the film properly, and it subsequently performed poorly at the box office. Although some critics were disappointed that Dante had taken what they felt was an obvious commercial project, the director cites this as one of his favourites. Dante consciously made the film to appeal to a broader audience, and although the satire seems subdued, the film is still enormous fun and one of Dante’s most all-round entertaining films. Stars Dennis Quaid and Martin Short have great on-screen chemistry (despite hardly sharing any screen time together) and a pre-mega stardom Meg Ryan makes a strong impression as Quaid’s girlfriend. The film is also full of wonderful character turns from Dante regulars. Kenneth Tobey’s cameo is great (he arguably gets the film’s best line and biggest laugh), Robert Picardo shines as ‘The Cowboy’, an outrageous foreign agent/smuggler with an obsession with all things Western, and Kevin McCarthy has one of his best roles in a Dante film as the villainous Victor Scrimshaw.
Following this, Dante helmed some segments for the comedy anthology film Amazon Women on the Moon (with other segments directed by Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, John Landis & Robert K. Weiss, 1987). He then took a conscious step away from overtly fantastical subject matter with The ‘burbs, a broadly comic look at the suburban mentality in the town of Hinckley Hills, USA, as a group of suburbanites, led by Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) suspect that their new neighbours, the Klopecs, are a bunch of murderers. The whole movie is confined to one street, this being the whole world to its inhabitants, as the opening shot (zooming into the street from outer space) implies. Ray and his friends Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) and Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) are fed up with their deadened suburban life and their campaign against the Klopecs seems to arise more out of boredom than any sense of civic duty. Although the denouement blunts the impact of all that has gone before, this is still very funny, and a typically subversive, anarchic Dante movie.
After continually turning down offers to direct a sequel to Gremlins, Dante finally accepted when he was given almost carte blanche by Warner Bros. to do whatever he wanted. In what must count as one of the most bizarre and outrageous sequels ever made, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) pulls out all the stops, mercilessly parodying the original film (characters point out flaws in the Gremlin ‘rules’, there is a comedic spin on Phoebe Cates’ ‘Santa Claus’ speech from the first film and a bunch of Gremlins strangle film critic Leonard Maltin as he pans the original film on a TV show). At one point, Dante has the Gremlins disrupt Gremlins 2 itself! In tycoon Donald Clamp (John Glover), Dante takes a swipe at late twentieth century corporate ethos, with Clamp’s smart building encapsulating everything that is wrong with corporate America. The gags fly thick and fast throughout, and to top things off, the film climaxes with a madcap pastiche of a Busby Berkley musical number, followed by Daffy Duck commenting sarcastically over the end credits! The film confounded many people; instead of a re-hash of the first film, Dante created an experimental, off the wall, over the top sequel, which satirised every target in sight.
Dante’s next film came three years later and Matinee is obviously a labour of love for the director, a film that contains a wealth of details for movie lovers. Dante shows off his love of old films (particularly those of 1950s movie maker William Castle) and the ritual of going to the movies, whilst poking gentle fun at Castle-like film maestro Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman). Dante shows us that although Woolsey is a huckster, he clearly loves the movies he makes. Any self-confessed movie fan—particularly a science fiction or horror fan—cannot fail to raise a smile in recognition as the kids sit in a cinema, captivated by the film’s film-within-a-film Mant. Along with a strong cast of kids and Dante regulars, special mention must go to Cathy Moriarty, who almost steals the show as Ruth Corday, Woolsey’s cynical, world-weary girlfriend/actress, her lines either drawling out the side of her mouth or emitted through gritted teeth. In contrast to Woolsey’s allegedly corrupt and horrific films, Matinee hints at the real danger from the imminent Cuban missile crisis—naturally, as seen on TV! Once again, what is on the screen affects reality, particularly when Woolsey fakes a nuclear explosion to clear patrons from the cinema before the auditorium collapses. Matinee evokes the magic of the movies, whilst acknowledging the horrors of the real world lurk around every corner.
It was another five years before Dante made his next film, but the wait was worth it. Although Small Soldiers (1998) occasionally feels like it is treading old ground, with its echoes of Gremlins, it is still an entertaining movie, showing a small suburban town overrun by toy soldiers fitted with computer chips to make them fight for real. Curiously, Small Soldiers was not a box office success of Gremlins-style proportions, despite the fact that it shares similarities with the highly successful Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995). It is possible that Small Soldiers alienated audiences because of its cynical stance towards toy merchandising and manufacturing, or maybe they stayed away because they felt that Dante’s film was just a rip off of Lasseter’s film. However, Small Soldiers has generated a lot of serious critical debate, with Jonathan Rosenbaum positing that Small Soldiers is a better, more clever war film than Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). Yet again, there are the jabs at consumer culture and the army. The military mentality is shown as blinkered and small-minded, with the Commando Elite soldiers, led by Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) not even knowing why they fight; they just fight because that is what they are programmed to do. The film ends in a full-scale war being waged in suburbia, with the Commando Elite laying siege to the protagonists’ house, with both toys and humans wielding household objects as deadly weapons.
With only two theatrical features released in the 1990s, Dante spent most of the decade directing for television, the best and most original being the series Eerie Indiana, on which Dante acted as Creative Consultant. Dante also directed some television movies, the most notable being Runaway Daughters (1994) and The Second Civil War (1997). There have been numerous film projects that Dante was attached to throughout the decade, including a contemporary version of The Mummy, (eventually directed in 1999 by Stephen Sommers and apparently bearing little resemblance to the original John Sayles-penned script), The Phantom (Simon Wincer, 1996, for which Dante received a producer’s credit), and other projects that never came to fruition, such as Everybody Hates the Phone Company (about a notorious computer hacker) and, most tantalising of all, Termite Terrace (a film chronicling the early days of Warner Bros. cartoons, based on a book by Chuck Jones.)
Bringing Dante’s career up to date, the director is currently finishing post-production duties on Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a Roger Rabbit-style mix of live action and animation featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. If the prospect of sitting through yet another family blockbuster seems depressing, comfort can be taken in the fact that, if anyone is qualified and entitled to bring Chuck Jones’ creations to life, it is Dante; he is a huge fan of Jones’ work and gave the legendary animator cameo roles in some of his films. Promising a plethora of movie in-jokes and plenty of savvy, satirical swipes at the Hollywood film industry, this could be the film to put Dante firmly back on the theatrical feature film map and give him the clout and creative freedom to pursue other, less commercially orientated projects.
Hollywood Boulevard (co-directed with Allan Arkush, 1976)
The Howling (1981)
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) directed Segment 3: “It’s a Good Life”
Amazon Women on the Moon (codirected with Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, John Landis & Robert K. Weiss, 1987)
The ‘burbs (1989)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Small Soldiers (1998)
R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse (2002) 4-D adventure film showing at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, USA
Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
Police Squad (1982) episodes “Ring of Fear” and “Testimony of Evil”
The Twilight Zone (1985) episode “The Shadow Man”
Amazing Stories (1986) episodes “Boo!” and “The Greibble”
Eerie Indiana (1991) also Creative Consultant
Runaway Daughters (1994) television movie
Picture Windows (1995) episode “Lightning”
The Second Civil War (1997) television movie
Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy (1998) also known as The Osiris Chronicles; television movie
Night Visions (2000) episodes “The Occupant” and “Quiet Please”
Anthony Ambrogio, “Joe Dante” in Nicholas Thomas (ed.), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2, Directors, London, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 187–188
Steve Biodrowski, “Joe Dante’s B-Movie Memories: Matinee”, Cinefantastique, vol. 23, no. 6, April 1993, pp. 46–47
Steve Biodrowski, “Dante’s Matinee: Mant”, Cinefantastique, vol. 24, no. 1, June 1993, pp. 58–59
David Chute, “Dante’s Inferno”, Film Comment, vol. 20, no. 3, May–June 1984, pp. 22–27
Pam Cook, “’Explorers‘ review”, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 636, January 1987, pp. 16–17
Mark Dawidziak, “Eerie Indiana”, Cinefantastique, vol. 22, no. 3, December 1991, p. 54
Jordan R. Fox, & Adam Eisenberg, “The Howling”, Cinefantastique, vol. 10, no. 3, Winter 1980, pp. 18–23
Ian Freer, “CGI Joe”, Empire, issue 113, November 1998, pp. 90–93
Pat Jankiewicz, “Matinee time for Joe Dante”, Starburst, issue 178, vol. 15, no. 10, June 1993, pp. 26–30
Pat Jankiewicz, “Eerie, Gremlins, Innerspace Joe Dante”, Starburst, issue 179, vol. 15, no. 11, July 1993, pp. 36–39
Bruce Kawin, “Reviews: The Funhouse and The Howling”, Film Quarterly, vol. xxxv, no. 1, Fall 1981, pp. 25–31
Bill Kelley, “Gremlins 2”, Cinefantastique, vol. 21, no. 1, July 1990, pp. 4–5
Bill Kelley, “Small Soldiers”, Cinefantastique, vol. 30, no. 9/10, November 1998, pp. 122–123
Christopher Kelly, “Toys in the Attic: The Unsung Pleasures (and Terrors) of Babe: Pig in the City and Small Soldiers”, Film Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Summer 2000, pp. 41–46
Mark Kermode, “Terror Master”, Sight and Sound, vol. 3, issue 6, June 1993, pp. 6–9
John Nangle, “Joe Dante blames Paramount for Explorers flop”, Cinefantastique, vol. 15, no. 5, January 1986, p. 43
Kim Newman, “’Gremlins‘ review”, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 51, no. 611, December 1984, pp. 382–383
Kim Newman, “’The ‘burbs‘ review”, Monthly film Bulletin, vol. 56, no. 667, August 1989, pp. 233–235
Rip Rense, “Joe ‘Gremlin’ Dante”, Starburst, special no. 6, 1990, pp. 40–49
David Ehrenstein, “Joe Dante and The Howling” in Jerry Roberts & Steven Gaydos, Movie Talk from the Front Lines, North Carolina, McFarland & Company Inc., 1995, pp. 49–65
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “At War with Cultural Violence: The Critical Reception of Small Soldiers” in Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See, Chicago, Illinois, A Cappella Books, 2000, pp. 63–77
Bill Warren, “A Starburst interview with Joe Dante”, part 1 of interview, Starburst, issue 36, vol. 3, no. 12, pp. 20–25
Bill Warren, “A Starburst interview with Joe Dante”, part 2 of interview, Starburst, issue 37, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 59–63
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to other Dante articles on the internet.
The Internet Movie Database
Good for an up-to-date list of all Dante’s projects, including his acting appearances, uncredited film work and numerous contributions to documentaries about cinema.
The Onion AV Club interview
Conducted in 2000, this is an excellent, in-depth interview with Dante, which includes his views on the contemporary Hollywood film industry, his 1990s television work, and his aborted version of The Mummy.
The Unofficial Joe Dante Web Site
Currently the only website devoted to Dante, containing plenty of information, trivia and links.
Click here to search for Joe Dante DVDs, videos and books at