In a summer where Barbie and Oppenheimer – or Barbenheimer – have changed box office rules, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that Jaws was the first true summer blockbuster. Not surprisingly, countless imitators tried to cash in on Steven Spielberg’s game-changing formula. Several of these imitators, however, were particularly shameless in their ‘borrowing’. Whether it was killer sharks, piranha, alligators, or grizzlies, the years following Jaws saw several eco-horror movies about a local hero joined by some animal expert and crusty hunter fighting killer animals and unethical mayors or businessmen. Below we remind you of eight of the best – and worst – Jaws ripoffs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976)
Though Mako: The Jaws of Death is the first movie on this list, it has very little in common with Jaws aside from sharks and the word ‘jaws’ in its title. Veteran character actor Richard Jaeckel plays an oddball recluse who shares a psychic connection with Mako sharks. When corrupt forces threaten his marine ‘friends’, Jaeckel’s ‘Sonny’ uses the sharks to exact a brutal revenge. Somewhere in this weird 70s eco-horror flick is a backstory feature a Filipino shaman and a magical amulet that protects the wearer against shark attacks. Aside from a decent score, everything else about Mako: The Jaws of Death is just plain bad. Only bad movie lovers will find anything to appreciate about this one.
Though it’s a landlocked rip-off, Grizzly very much remains a Jaws knock-off. In fact, if it weren’t for the switching out of a grizzly bear for a Great White Shark, Universal’s lawyers may have come a knocking. Nearly all of the familiar plot devices from jaws are present here. A park ranger teams with military veteran helicopter pilot and naturalist to track down and stop an unusually large grizzly that’s feasting on locals and tourists. Yes, a corrupt park supervisor initially refuses to close the national park. And the park ranger uses an implausible means to finally kill the rogue animal. That’s where the similarities end. Unlike Jaws, the special effects in this eco-horror retread are amateurish and laughable. Only lovers of bad movies will enjoy this one.
On the surface, Orca looks like a straightforward ripoff of Jaws. To some extent, it is a knockoff where a mammal (no, not a fish) terrorizes a small coastal village. Richard Harris plays a crusty fishermen joined by cetologist Charlotte Rampling and Will Sampson’s Mi’kmaq local on a distant ocean quest to stop the killer mammal. But the Dino De Laurentis-produced eco-horror flick diverges in a number of ways. Chief among them, Orca boasts an odd revenge narrative that has to be seen to be believed. And its tone very much reflect its American, Canadian, and Italian production background. Unlike most of the movies on this list, Orca also makes for a rather decent viewing experience.
No, Tentacles isn’t the worst Jaws ripoff on this list. Nonetheless, this Italian-American produced eco-horror thriller is the most guilty given its relative riches of talent. While some eco-horror Jaws rip-offs – like Grizzly or Orca – managed enough cheese to be sort of fun in a bad way, Tentacles is a brainless, tedious B-movie. Good actors recite terrible dialogue, while bad actors have their dialogue poorly dubbed. Occasionally good ocean footage of real octopi gives way to some poor effects. Yet it’s greatest offences are a plodding pace paired with a tendency to take itself too seriously. Only the most diehard fans of 70s horror will find something to like about this one.
While a number of Jaws-influenced movies hit theatres in the years following its release, Joe Dante’s Piranha works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Produced by legendary B-film auteur, Roger Corman, Piranha positions itself as more of a parody than outright horror. From its opening scene where two teens sneak into an abandoned military complex for late-evening skinny dip, you can see the open winks and nods to the famous opening in Jaws. Dante, who would later perfect his in-joke referencing with The Howling, litters Piranha with self-referential jokes for the keen observer. Moreover, the blood and gore effects are also well above average for a low budget 70s flick. For fans of cult movies, this is a fun B-movie that’s in on its own joke from start to finish.
Writer John Sayles is no stranger to satirizing horror movies. Just two years prior to Alligator, it was Sayles collaborated with Joe Dante on Piranha. He’d work with Dante again on the werewolf classic, The Howling. Like Piranha, Alligator mirrors the basic nature-strikes-back narrative popularized by Jaws and recycled by any number of eco-horror movies. If you’re going to make a movie about giant killer animals, this is how you do it. Rather than simply recycling Jaws, Teague and Sayles subtly poke fun at the box office juggernaut’s countless imitators. It helps that Alligator rarely slows down, boasts plenty of reptilian action alongside some fun gore. Over 40 years later, the effects still hold up well enough. And the performances are committed but fun – everyone knows what they signed signed up for in Alligator. What the movie ultimately delivers is B-movie fun well worth watching.
The Last Shark (1981)
Of all the Jaws ripoff’s on this list, The Last Shark is probably the worst offender. Also known as Great White, this Italian horror movie eventually lost its North American release once Universal Studios caught wind of it. This isn’t similar to the Spielberg classic – it is the same story that’s just rushed and clumsily executed. And the special effects are anything but special. Some shark scenes look like they actually use a dolphin, while other scenes just a use a fin … or nothing. Of course, when the prop shark head awkwardly emerges now and then from the water, you’ll know why The Last Shark rarely shows its shark. But the best is when director Enzo G. Castellari has boasts (with mannequins on board) shoot up out of the water for shark attacks. This is just pure cheese.
Cruel Jaws (1995)
How bad is Cruel Jaws? It actually uses some footage from The Last Shark – that’s how bad. Another Italian horror movie, this straight-to-video dud also uses footage from all four movies in the Jaws series. All the story tropes you’d expect from a bad Jaws ripoff are present. A local beach jammed with tourists and an upcoming regatta. Locals banding together. An unscrupulous mayor. A larger than normal shark. It’s all here and done poorly. Maybe the most egregious moment, however, comes when one character exclaims, “We’re gonna need a bigger helicopter”. If Cruel Jaws wasn’t so inept, you might be offended by its shameless ripping off of Jaws.