I have a weakness for cheesy, "so bad they're good" low budget horror, sci-fi or action movies. I watch'em so you don't have to!
"The Last Shark" aka "Great White" (1981)
Directed by: Enzo G. Castellari
Starring: James Franciscus, Vic Morrow, Joshua Sinclair, Giancarlo Prete
In 1981's The Last Shark, the residents of a seaside resort town are terrorized by a series of fatal shark attacks, until a couple of tough guys head out to sea to hunt the critter down and kill it.
Universal Pictures obviously thought so. When this Italian Jaws wanna-be was imported to the U.S. in 1982 under the title Great White, they promptly cried "plagiarism" and sued the film's American distributor, Film Ventures International. As a result, Great White was pulled from U.S. theaters after only a few weeks of release and was quickly forgotten, never to be screened again in the United States.
Naturally, this "forbidden fruit" aspect made Great White irresistible to American B-Movie enthusiasts, who wanted to see what all the fuss was about, even if they had to settle for poor quality bootlegs of the flick, sourced from foreign video releases.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently stumbled across the movie (under its original Last Shark title) on Amazon Prime. Did Hell freeze over? Did I miss a memo? Maybe enough time had passed that Universal Pictures didn't care about this movie anymore, or perhaps they realized that their own Jaws 3-D (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987) did way more damage to the brand than this Spaghetti knock-off?
Whatever the reason, I gratefully grabbed a few cold beers, pressed "play," and settled in to watch a movie that I've been wanting to see since my early teens. I wasn't disappointed!
Make no mistake, The Last Shark was bad, but it's entertainingly bad. Like most Italian B-movies of the era, The Last Shark is essentially a compilation of scenes borrowed from other, better movies. If you've seen the first two Jaws films (or any of the aquatic-terror wanna-be's that followed in their wake, like Tentacles or Piranha) you've seen this movie already, but despite its derivative nature Great White was still 90 minutes of silly, toothy fun.
The sleepy coastal town of Port Harbor is preparing for its annual summer windsurfing competition when a local boy is killed by a shark during a practice run. Local author and scuba enthusiast Peter Barton (James Franciscus of Marooned and Good Guys Wear Black) and grizzled sea captain Ron Hamer (Vic Morrow of Combat!, Humanoids From The Deep, and Message From Space), volunteer to hunt it down, but they've got competition - local politician William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) is also gunning for the shark, hoping that the P.R. will boost his campaign for governor, and a sleazy TV news reporter (Giancarlo Prete) has hired a big-game hunter to find the beast, anticipating huge ratings if he can capture its death on film.
Naturally, the shark is smarter than any of the humans in the film. The town places safety nets in the water to protect the windsurfing regatta, but the shark easily smashes through them and makes mincemeat of the competition. Governor Wells meets an unintentionally hilarious end when he tries to kill the shark from a helicopter. The battle becomes personal for Barton when his daughter joins a group of teens on an ill-fated hunting expedition and loses a leg to the monster. The shark also attacks a pier, which takes care of the TV crew, leaving only Barton and Hamer to go mano-a-mano (or mano-a-sharko?) with the hungry great white.
I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that it's remarkably similar to the way the shark was dispatched in Universal's Jaws 3-D... which came out more than a year AFTER this movie was first released in Europe. Coincidence? Hmmm...
Wow, it's on DVD too!!
Summing it up...
So was The Last Shark worth the 35+ year wait? I thought so. It was certainly more entertaining than either Jaws 3-D or Jaws: The Revenge, so put that in your pipe and smoke it, Universal!
Given its obvious budget limitations, The Last Shark's special effects aren't nearly as bad as I expected. The mechanical shark's head seems convincing enough as long as you didn't look too closely at it, but the underwater shots of the beast were either obvious stock footage, or hilariously fake rubber models. Gore is minimal except for two characters who get bitten in half. I guess director Enzo Castellari liked that effect so much that he decided to use it twice.
Legendary tough-guy actor Vic Morrow's performance as Ron Hamer was the highlight of Great White for me. He's basically playing the generic brand version of Robert Shaw's "Captain Quint" from the original Jaws, and Morrow snarls every line of dialogue through clenched teeth, as if he's got lockjaw. He also gives Hamer a random, comical Scottish brogue that appears and disappears depending on the scene. I guess Morrow figured that it didn't really matter what he sounded like, since they were just gonna dub over his real voice with an Italian actor anyway. Sadly, this was one of Vic's final film roles. After Great White, he appeared in 1981's 1990: The Bronx Warriors (also directed by Enzo Castellari) before his tragic 1982 death during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Additional Fun Fact
Great White also plays a part in a notorious Hollywood mystery that remains unsolved to this day.
The legal battle with Universal over Great White dealt a severe financial blow to the tiny Film Ventures International (FVI) company, which managed to limp along for a few more years after the lawsuit... but in 1984, head honcho Edward L. Montoro took $1 million out of the corporate account and disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. If he's still alive, Edward L. Montoro would be in his early 90s today. Legend has it that he split to Mexico with the cash to start a new life under a new name, but no one knows for sure. That would be a pretty cool idea for a movie!
© 2019 Keith Abt