After a stint as a film reviewer, Joe Dante began his filmmaking apprenticeship in 1974 when producer Roger Corman offered him a job in the trailer-cutting department at New World Pictures, where he edited the trailers for such films as Cover Girl Models and Amarcord. Other established directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich had already emerged from Corman’s de-facto film school.
In 1975, Dante moved up to directing when he collaborated with fellow Corman school alumni Allan Arkush to make the satirical exploitation film Hollywood Boulevard. The film was conceived when Corman made a bet that he could make a film within ten days on a budget of only $54,000 dollars, (the cheapest made by New World Pictures). The filmmakers achieved this by coming up with a story about a B movie studio which could incorporate footage from other movies that Corman owned.
Two years later, Dante directed Piranha, written by John Sayles. The film was shot in Texas “in a rush” on a budget of $600,000 dollars, and was considered quite ambitious for the time and cost. Dante, who was convinced the film would be a disaster, spent a month in the editing room. People came to visit him, but as Dante recalled he was in “such a fog” that he didn’t even recognize who they were at first. The film won the attention of Steven Spielberg who, unbeknownst to Dante, prevented Universal from blocking the film’s release, convincing them that Piranha was a parody and that it wasn’t in competition with Jaws 2.
In 1979, Dante directed some scenes of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School when Allan Arkush fell ill due to exhaustion, but remains uncredited. Dante also helped plot the premise of the film with Arkush.
Dante again collaborated with John Sayles when he enlisted him to rewrite the previously adapted draft of Gary Brandner’s werewolf tale The Howling. Sayles rewrote the script with the same self-aware, satirical tone that he gave Piranha, and his finished script bears only a slight resemblance to Brandner’s novel. The film’s special effects, which at the time were considered state-of-the-art, were completed by Rob Bottin after Rick Baker left to work on An American Werewolf in London.
Dante had been previously offered the chance to direct Airplane! by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. Although he turned it down, Dante agreed to direct two episodes of their police procedural spoof Police Squad!, which was his first experience shooting something on a studio lot.
Due to their work on The Howling, Dante and producer Michael Finnell received the opportunity to make the film Gremlins by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg also brought Dante on as one of the directors on John Landis’ Twilight Zone: The Movie. Dante’s segment, a remake of the original Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”, features cartoon-style special effects, revolving around a woman played by Kathleen Quinlan who is ‘adopted’ by an omnipotent boy.
Chris Columbus’ original draft of Gremlins went through several rewrites before a shooting script was finalized. The film follows a teenager, played by Zach Galligan, who inadvertently breaks three important rules concerning his new pet and unleashes a horde of malevolently mischievous monsters on a small town. It proved to be one of Dante’s biggest hits to date, being the third highest-grossing film of 1984.
After the success of Gremlins, Dante took on the offer to direct Explorers, about a group of friends who build a working spacecraft and encounter extraterrestrial life.
In the mid-1980s, Dante was offered the script of Innerspace written by Chip Proser, who called it “a rip off of Fantastic Voyage”. Dante initially turned the film down until the script was later rewritten as a comedy by Jeffrey Boam. Dante said he had a “wonderful experience” making Innerspace, mainly because of the cast which included actors Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, and Meg Ryan among others.
In 1988, Dante agreed to direct the black comedy The ‘Burbs, intrigued by its premise and the blending of real-life situations with elements of the supernatural. Dante and producers Larry Brezner and Michael Finnell agreed that Tom Hanks would be the most suitable actor to portray the married Ray Peterson, a suburban homeowner who tries to introduce excitement into his life by investigating the activities of his mysterious neighbors. Dante referred to Hanks as “the reigning everyman, a guy that everybody can identify with”, comparing him to James Stewart.
Dante was asked many times to helm a sequel to Gremlins, due to its financial success. Dante declined, because he saw that story as having a proper ending, and thus a sequel would only be meant to be profitable. The studio decided to proceed without him, approaching various directors and writers. Storylines considered included sending the gremlins to Las Vegas or even into outer space. After those ideas fell through, the studio returned to Dante, who agreed to make the sequel after receiving the rare promise of having complete creative control over the movie as well as a budget tripling that of the original film. Since Chris Columbus was not available to write the sequel’s script at the time, Dante brought on screenwriter Charles S. Haas to help plot the film. Dante later claimed it was the film into which he had put the most of his personal influence. He referred to it as “one of the more unconventional studio pictures ever,” imagining it as a satire of Gremlins and sequels in general, resulting in a film with several meta-references and self-referential humor. Both Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates returned to star in the film. It also features several guest stars, including Christopher Lee as a mad scientist. The film was released to theaters in the Summer of 1990.
Charles S. Haas wrote two more films for Dante; one an unproduced script about Chuck Jones’ early years at Termite Terrace and the other, Matinee about the Cuban Missile Crisis. In it, John Goodman stars as William Castle-type filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey, who specializes in horror and sci-fi B movies.
In 1994, Dante directed the television film Runaway Daughters (a loose remake of the 1956 film), that aired as part of the anthology series Rebel Highway which paid homage to 1950s “drive-in classic” B movies by revamping them “with a ’90s edge”. Dante also directed the 1997 made-for-television film The Second Civil War.
When Dante began pre-production work for Small Soldiers, a film about toy action figures who come to life, he was told to make an “edgy picture for teenagers.” Later, after the film finished shooting, he was told by the film’s sponsors to soften it as a “kiddie picture” and as a result, several of the action and explosion scenes were edited out at his behest.
Dante directed the 2003 live-action/animation hybrid Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The project was developed several other times before eventually being offered to Dante. He agreed to direct the film to pay tribute to his idol Chuck Jones, and as somewhat of a placeholder for his unmade biographical comedy Termite Terrace.
He then returnined to television, directing two episodes of the horror anthology series Masters of Horror.
In 2007, Dante launched the web series Trailers from Hell, which provides commentary by directors, producers and screenwriters on trailers for classic and cult movies. Dante also actively contributes to the website.
Dante returned to feature films several years later in 2009 with the independent 3D horror comedy The Hole, which received the Premio Persol award at the Venice Film Festival.
With Roger Corman producing, Dante directed the interactive web series Splatter for Netflix. The series stars Corey Feldman as a rock star seeking revenge on those he thinks have wronged him.
From 2011 to 2017, Dante returned each season to direct an episode of the Hawaii Five-0 reboot.
Subsequently, Dante directed Anton Yelchin and Ashley Greene in Burying the Ex, adapted from Alan Trezza’s 2008 short film. The film follows a horror film buff whose controlling girlfriend suddenly dies in a freak accident but when he tries to move on with his life along with his new partner, he discovers that his ex has come back from the dead in the form of a zombie.
In 2018, Dante directed a segment of Nightmare Cinema, a horror anthology film starring Mickey Rourke and featuring shorts also directed by Alejandro Brugués, Mick Garris, Ryūhei Kitamura, and David Slade. That same month, Dante launched his own weekly podcast The Movies That Made Me, with Josh Olson as his co-host, where filmmakers and entertainers are brought on to discuss the movies that inspired them.
In 2020, it was announced that Dante would be returning to the world of Gremlins serving as a consultant on the HBO Max prequel series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai.