It did well at the box office, grossing over $18 million in its first month in the United States; however, its North American release was later blocked after accusations of plagiarism of Jaws.
While wind-surfing near the seaside community of Port Harbor, a young man is killed by a giant Great White Shark. Horror author Peter Benton and professional shark hunter Ron Hammer realize the truth, but ambitious governor William Wells refuses to accept that a shark threat exists, fearing that a cancelled wind-surfing regatta would derail his campaign to become state governor. Wells has shark nets installed, but the sounds of teenagers splashing in the surf leads the shark to rip through the nets. The next day, the shark plows through the wind surfers, knocking them off their boards, before targeting the governor's aide and eating him.
Wells can no longer hide the truth and Benton and Hammer head out to sea, planning to feed the shark dynamite and cause it to explode. The shark traps them in a cave though, and the men have to use their dynamite just to escape. Meanwhile, Benton's daughter Jenny and some of her friends head out on a yacht, armed with some steak and a shotgun, intending to shoot the shark. Instead, its powerful bites on the bait knock Jenny into the water. Her friends pull her back onboard, but the shark bites off one of her legs in the process. Governor Wells's son was one of the friends she went out with and Benton blames him for her injury. Determined to do something right, Wells sets out in a helicopter armed with a steak, apparently intending to hoist the shark into the air and suffocate it. But the shark is too powerful; when it bites into the steak dangling from a winch, it shakes the copter and knocks Wells into the sea. The shark then bites him in half, before lunging into the helicopter, dragging it into the sea.
Benton and Hammer go back out to blow up the shark. After an argument, Benton agrees to allow Hammer to be the one to go down with the dynamite strapped into a belt around his waist. Thinking the shark might be hiding in the downed helicopter, Hammer investigates it. The shark sneaks up on him and attacks and despite Benton's attempts to save him, Hammer becomes wrapped up in a line and is towed to his death by the shark.
Meanwhile, a shark hunter chains some spare ribs to the side of a dock. The man, a TV cameraman and some spectators go stand on the dock, when the shark takes the ribs, towing the dock out into the ocean. Suddenly, the shark begins to attack the dock, knocking the people into the water and eating the shark hunter and a TV Cameraman. Benton arrives and rescues the other people, but gets trapped on the dock when the shark arrives to drag it further out to sea. Hammer's corpse floats by and Benton feeds it to the shark. Realising he has the detonator in his hand, Benton leaps into the ocean and flips the switch, detonating the dynamite and blowing the shark's head off.
Back on shore, Benton punches Bob Martin, then gets in a car and drives away.James Franciscus as Peter Benton
Vic Morrow as Ron Hamer
Micaela Pignatelli as Gloria Benton
Joshua Sinclair as Governor William Wells
Giancarlo Prete as Bob Martin
Stefania Girolami Goodwin as Jenny Benton
Universal Pictures attempted to block the distribution of the film by Film Ventures before its U.S. premiere on March 5, 1982, but the request was denied in U.S. District Court. However, about a month into the film's release, Federal judge David V. Kenyon ruled the film was too similar to Jaws and the film was subsequently pulled from theaters.
The film was released as Great White in the United States enjoying much success, and as Shark in the United Kingdom. The film also enjoyed a good response in Italy, where it became the 72nd highest-grossing film of the season 1980–1981.
On March 5, 2013, RetroVision Entertainment released the first official DVD release of the film in the United States since the film's banning. The film comes with restored colors, along with special features, including the short documentary Great White: The Legacy – 30 Years Later and rare theatrical trailers. The DVD is limited edition Region 0, and only 500 copies were manufactured. It is only able to be purchased online.
A version of the movie with a RiffTrax commentary was made available on June 17, 2016.
The Monthly Film Bulletin stated that "its only interest (and amusement) is the way it has solemnly transcribed [from Jaws]". The Boston Globe commented negatively on the special effects, stating that the film obviously cuts between Vic Morrow and a shot of a shark in an aquarium and that the shark in question occasionally resembled a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloon.