Written and Directed by: Jean-Patrick Lebel
Starring: Glenn Ford, Henry Borsk, and Norm Craig
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Man is the outcast here, and we must remain a careful stranger."
When I declared that films rarely come more exploitative than Tintorera, I didn’t expect to run into an exception to the rule so quickly. To quote John Matrix, “I lied.” It turns out that Great White Death is a supreme exercise in exploitation out of the Mondo tradition, which tantalizes morbidly curious viewers with the promise of real-life footage from cultures around the world. In this case, filmmaker Jean Lebel takes to the seas to document the creatures that had grown to be so fascinating on screen in the wake of Jaws, and, in keeping with exploitation custom, employs a bit of a bait-and-switch: while it’s sold on the promise of actual shark attacks (with some marketing going so far as to link it with Faces of Death), it also seeks to educate audiences when it doesn’t want them to gawk at nature’s grisly exploits.
Our host is Glenn Ford, inexplicably tapped to narrate over a scattershot documentary that traces everything from primitive cultures’ relationships with sharks to more modern efforts to understand, study, and protect ourselves from the beasts. His tone oscillates between grave and fatherly, depending on the occasion, as Great White Death assembles an eclectic jumble of footage, including a fictional prologue featuring two bikini babes treading into dangerous waters. With such a schlocky opener, it would seem the film has set its trashy tone, one that it does indulge from time to time whenever it feels the need to jolt audiences and remind them just how dangerous these animals can be.
And so it obliges with some truly horrific footage, with one “highlight” occurring during an anecdote about an ill-fated deep-sea diving venture that leaves one man missing half of his leg. You don’t just have to take the poor guy’s word for it, either, as the accompanying footage captures the gruesome ordeal without flinching (or at least recreates it very convincingly. From the attack itself to his fellow divers hauling back onto the ship, it’s a fucking ghastly episode where the blood spilling onto the ship pales in comparison to the horrified look of shock washing over the victim’s sheet-white face. It’s not a pleasant experience, and, had Great White Death consistently wallowed in this sort of stuff, its notoriety would be off the charts.
Mercifully, it spares us of too much nastiness, even if it does continue to sensationalize real life events, such as a rash of South African shark attacks that led to the country attempting to install a protective net in its seas. Likewise, it features ominous footage of beachgoers carelessly swimming as Ford grimly intones about how easily sharks are attracted to their natural noises. In Australia, dogs are even banned from the beach since their barks resemble those of a sea lion, which just happens to be a choice meat for great white sharks (among other things, this documentary actually is informative). So much of the film is expressly dedicated to reminding viewers that sharks are not to be trifled with via authentic footage of encounters that are startling but astounding. Great White Death regards these beasts much like the ancient cultures it describes: with a sense of terrified awe, as if they were monoliths never meant to be understood beyond their sheer power as nature’s most horribly sublime emissaries.
And yet, there are moments when Ford stops to question if this can possibly be true. Are sharks simply the indiscriminate killing machines we’ve feared them to be for several millennia? Considering it comes in the midst of a documentary that has heretofore reveled in gruesome and awful footage, the aside almost feels comical. Lebel does intend to genuinely answer it, though, as he attempts to reconsider his subjects in scientific terms by describing their stabilizing effect on the ecosystem. Maybe the film just described a whole array of deadly creatures, going so far as to even include poisonous fish and sea snakes, but it would also have you know that they are simply acting on their instincts and carrying out the natural order of things. Maybe they aren’t fearsome beasts—after all, where some ancient beliefs painted sharks and demons, others regarded them as gods.
Of course, either way, we’re meant to tremble at their awesomeness; whether they be gods or demons, sharks occupy a space beyond as remnants of an ancient world man never occupied. While its brief digression on the megalodon mostly highlights and sensationalizes its massive size, there’s something chilling about Ford’s reminder that their distant ancestors still swim among us. Great White Death may worship at the altar of schlock, but it manages some genuinely unnerving moments that capture the primal terror surrounding sharks: notably, sun-soaked footage of boaters striking off to a roaring, desolate sea resembles a haunting descent into hell. For all its attempts to understand sharks, Great White Death is ultimately enraptured by their aura, its final message clearly a warning against underestimating nature’s capacity to swallow us in a razor-toothed abyss without little thought and even less remorse.
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