Everyone knows Italian exploitation filmmakers are kings of movie rip-offs. The cop thrillers, zombie gut-munchers, post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventures, and cut-rate barbarian epics spawned by high-profile Hollywood fare gained great notoriety among cult film fans, but what about the “sharksploitation” movies cranked out in the wake of Jaws (1975)? Cult filmmaker Enzo G. Castellari had regular leading man Franco Nero facing killer sharks and mafia hitmen in The Shark Hunter (1979), but came a-cropper with L’Ultimo Squalo/The Last Shark, a brazen doppelganger that irked Universal Studios.
John Williams can rest easy. A hideous disco number from Guido and Maurizio De Angelis accompanies the first scene, where a young windsurfer practicing for the South Bay Centennial Regatta is gobbled up by a great white shark. Local writer Peter Benton (James Franciscus) searches for the missing youth alongside grizzled - and apparently Scottish - sea captain Ron Hammer (Vic Morrow) only to discover his mangled body. “One things for sure, it wasn’t a floatin’ chainsaw”, barks Hammer. Despite all evidence pointing to a shark attack, ambitious politico William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) lets the regatta go ahead, while his idiot son leads a group of teenagers - including Benton’s daughter Jenny (Stefania Girolami) - out shark hunting, with predictably messy results.
Castellari is a talented, occasionally inspired action director, but the shark attacks lack the shock value of their famous progenitor and are surprisingly bloodless. You know you’re in trouble when even Jaws 3-D (1983) packs more of a thrill, while characterisation - a sorely underrated facet of Steven Spielberg’s original - is reduced to one scene with Franciscus emoting by his daughter’s hospital bed and Morrow’s bizarre Scottish brogue, which disappears and reappears more often than the wily shark. Although the mechanical shark is more convincing than Spielberg’s, and the cutaways to stock footage are seamless, too many scenes play like photocopies. There’s the late night, skinny-dipping teens become shark fodder from the original; the outrageous, shark leaps out to grab a helicopter bit from Jaws 2 (1978); and the ranting fisherman meant to recall Robert Shaw’s maniacal Quint.
The Italian crew and supporting cast - who include Castellari’s brother Enio Girolami as Wells’ snide assistant who becomes shark chow, and sister Stefania Girolami who later headlined The Bronx Warriors (1982) - result in an almost cartoon parody of a Hollywood movie. Cheerleaders perform on the beach; banners, buildings and billboards are decorated in red, white and blue; and the locals all sport gleaming white teeth and feathered hair, or horrific bubble-perms on the surfer dudes. Castellari is more cynical about his American surroundings than Spielberg, including an unscrupulous TV reporter (Giancarlo Prete - later the hero - and lest we forget, sodomy victim! - of The New Barbarians (1982)) who is happy to film innocent people getting eaten. However, Wells emerges as a slightly more sympathetic character than Murray Hamilton’s oily mayor in Jaws, and provokes a cheer when he gives his no-brain son a hearty slap.
Although nowhere near the worst Italian sharksploitation movie - and a darned sight better than Jaws: The Revenge (1987) - how can you recommend a shark movie where one character says - without a trace of irony - “Something fishy is going on here.”