When Jaws swam into theatres in 1975 and broke box office records across the globe it was no surprise that Jaws rip-offs were not far behind, but for some reason, it was the Italian horror film The Last Shark (aka Great White for its North American release) that Universal Studios decided to sue for plagiarism, and won. This wasn’t in time to prevent it from pulling 18 million dollars in that first month of its release, nor did it stop the producers from promoting it as a Jaws sequel in foreign markets, but the one strange thing I took away from watching this film is that it wasn’t even that much of a rip-off. William Girdler’s Grizzly followed the Jaws script almost plot point to plot point, with the only real change being the swapping out of a bear for a shark, although director Enzo G. Castellari’s The Last Shark does include a gruff shark hunter and “We can’t close the beaches it’s the Fourth of July” plot point it does veer quite a ways from your standard Jaws rip-off.
Instead of taking place during the Fourth of July celebrations on the island community of Amity, this movie deals with a windsurfing regatta in and around the seaside community of Port Harbor. When a windsurfer goes missing, and his later found chewed-up board points to a shark being responsible, world-renowned author Peter Benton (James Franciscus) and his professional shark hunter buddy Ron Hammer (Vic Morrow) want the regatta cancelled, but Mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) opposes this decision as he needs the regatta to help promote his run for Governor. I’m not a political campaign expert but the chance of a constituent being eaten by a shark during one of your events doesn’t seem like a good thing, but what is really odd here for a Jaws rip-off is that Wells secures the cove, where the regatta will take place, with anti-shark nets and places numerous look-out boats across the cove’s entrance. He even tells Hammer he can have whatever he needs to ensure the safety of the windsurfers, and when the shark, of course, breaks through the net and eats Wells’ campaign manager Hammer even defends Wells to the press stating, “Security measures were taken, but not for a Great White of this size.”
Later Wells is told that if they don’t take care of the shark his political party will no longer back his run for Governorship, and even though that threat is ridiculous and makes no sense Well does whatever he can to get rid of the shark. He may be an ambitious man with political motivation but he does more to save his community than Mayor Vaughn did in Jaws. The one blatant moment of plagiarism is that when the shark breaks through the netting it gets caught on one of the cables mooring a buoy, and so we get multiple shots of the buoy racing through the water just as the yellow barrels in Jaws marked the movement of the shark in that film. This was Spielberg’s brilliant way to get around not showing the shark, as his mechanical shark wasn’t working half the time and they had to film something, but if you’re going to steal an idea at least steal a good one. Unfortunately, director Enzo G. Castellari still went ahead and showed their terrible shark in way too many awful shots. Aside from the random use of stock footage of real sharks the “Last Shark” never once looks convincing.
The film doesn’t have much time for plot or character development in its 82-minute runtime which consists mainly of people going out to sea with a piece of meat as bait, hoping for that big cash bounty, the shark munching on the bait and then munching on one of the idiots attempting to catch it. The James Franciscus character is a poor substitute for Sheriff Brody and we are given no real reason as to why he is involved with Hammer and his shark hunting in the first place, sure later when his daughter gets her leg bitten off that’s a bit of motivation but at the outset, he’s just a famous author, not Captain Ahab.
Vic Morrow is right off the rails with his gruff shark hunter bit, in part that so wants to be Quint, but his choice of a terrible Scottish accent undermines his “performance” at every turn. On a side note, his character dies when he is tangled up in some cables and is dragged away by the shark and drowned, which is interesting because this is basically how Quint died in the book, so it’s kind of neat to see them ripping off the book instead of the movie for a change. Wells, on the other hand, dies when he takes a helicopter out to try and kill the beast and ends up being bitten in half when the shark goes all Jaws 2 on the helicopter.
The real villain of this movie is Bob Martin (Giancarlo Prete), the man hired by Wells to film and documents his run for Governor, for when the shark starts chowing down on the locals he ditches that job in favour of covering the shark attacks in the hopes of getting a job with the networks. At one point he even enlists one of his cameramen to tie a rack of ribs to the dock so as to be able to properly film the shark attacking, something he neglects to tell all the innocent bystanders standing on the dock, and they end up being dragged out to sea when the shark yanks the end of the dock clean off.
Lucky for the survivors Benton arrives on his boat and is able to get them off the dock before the rest of them are eaten, but because Benton is an idiot he himself ends up alone on the sinking wreckage and thus he must face the shark alone. Well not quite alone. because Lady Luck isn’t done yet with our heroes as Hammer’s corpse just happens to float by, he died earlier in an idiotic attempt to blow up the shark, and Benton is able to get the detonator from that belt of explosives which his dead buddy was wearing, and for some inexplicable reason, Benton then dives into the air while pressing the detonator after the shark swallows the corpse of Hammer.
As in Jaws the shark is killed by being blown up, and as the shark blowing up happens in three out of the four Jaws movies I can see how Universal may consider it their thing, but as much as this film rips off Jaws it has enough different that I personally think the lawsuit was frivolous and probably just netted Castellari free publicity. There are certainly a lot of films guiltier for ripping off Spielberg’s film than this one was but The Last Shark’s greatest crime is making an audience suffer through what is overall a rather forgettable shark film, which is a bigger crime than just being a Jaws rip-off.
Science Moment: At one point in the film Benton and Hammer have gone hunting the shark with their scuba gear and after their “boomsticks” fail to harm the creature they are forced to hide in an underwater cave. The shark then proceeds to ram the rocks around the cave entrance to trap our heroes. One of the shark’s main attributes is its incredible ability to sense movement and the littlest amount of blood in the water and most of this sensing equipment is located in its nose, something it would not use to ram a rocky cave entrance.
The Last Shark (1981)
The Last Shark is a terrible movie with a goofy-ass shark and a cast of characters that are as forgettable as they are stupid. Viewing of this film is advised only if good friends and good alcohol are available.