Rating: 2/5, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not good.
“Tina’s death has affected a great many people… but it doesn’t give you or anyone else the right to be discourteous.”
Directed by Del Tenney, The Horror of Party Beach is a low-budget cult classic featuring lots of bikini-clad bums, a slumber party massacre, radioactive zombie mutations, and music by the Del-Aires. It featured in the hugely influential 1979 book by Harry and Michael Medved, The 50 Worst Films of All Time, and was “riffed” on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1997, cementing its “bad movie” status. Today it occupies 94th spot on IMDB’s Bottom 100 list.
As bad movies go, Tenney’s film, shot in just three weeks with an estimated budget of $120 000, really isn’t that bad. The plot, in which illegally dumped radioactive waste seeps into the ocean, transforming some drowned corpses into horrific, blood-thirsty sea monsters who attack a beach party, is fairly typical for the genre, and the movie enjoyed reasonable success on its release. The acting is mediocre, but inoffensive, while the Del-Aires provide delightfully catchy songs such as Zombie Stomp to jiggle around to.
The longevity of these bad movies, however, depends on their flaws and Tenney has provided several for our entertainment. Most obviously jarring is the sound editing throughout the film; as lead Elaine (who looks at least ten years older than her teen friends), Alice Lyon’s performance is completely dubbed, and she doesn’t appear to be alone in receiving this post-production treatment. The Del-Aires’ “live” beach performances rarely correlate to the studio-quality sound and, for some inexplicable reason, two girls stalked by one of the monsters as they walk home at night have an entire conversation by talking over each other. Yet at times the music is effective. Tenney has created a discomforting score of alien, shrieking sounds reminiscent of those that accompany the monster in another bad classic, Monster A-go Go (1965); here too, these noises signify the immanent appearance of the murderous creatures. The Del-Aires, who feature prominantly in the first half hour, no longer serve a logical purpose following the beach party massacre, appearing only twice in the remainder of the film (at a dance following the slaughter of twenty teenage girls at a slumber party, and in the closing credits) – despite the movie being billed as the “first horror monster musical!”
The monsters themselves are clearly humans in monster suits who, despite their sea-faring origins, are even more ungainly in the water than they are on land. There are two different versions, although this is actually acknowledged and explained in the script, when it is explained that not all humans look the same, so why should radioactive sea zombies? Their prey is almost exclusively teenage girls – poor Tina meets her demise first, after causing an oddly acrobatic brawl due to her flirtatious dance with a biker before dramatically running into the water for a nice swim. She is killed when one of the monsters smears chocolate sauce all over her (sorry, when she is brutally slashed and mutilated), but some of the deaths later on are shown in grisly close-up; in fact, The Horror of Party Beach had to be heavily cut to gain a certification in the UK.
There are portions of Tenney’s film that take on a strangely hypnotic quality. The initial creation of the monsters sees a human skull being slowly transformed into a gilled beast, not unlike the iconic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); revealed through time-lapse photography and smoke-filled disolves, it is a surreal and unearthly scene, filmed on a stage with superimposed (and, consequently, transparent) fish swimming by obliviously. Tenney uses camera trickery in the final scene also, when a large number of monsters unite for the final showdown against Elaine, her father and important scientist Dr Gavin, and Elaine’s love interest Hank. To compensate for the limited number of monster costumes, Tenney loops the same footage on top of itself, creating a jerky, sped-up army of uncoordinated yet identical creatures.
But, of course, despite some memorable moments, this is not a good movie. The final battle takes place during the day, or at night, depending on which character is on screen. The script is shoddy despite featuring some classic lines (such as the one mentioned above) mixed in with cheesy, cringeworthy jokes, while the narrative coherence is tenuous at best – it is strange, for example, that the superstitious house maid Eulabelle’s suggestion that the murders are human in origin is quickly dismissed by Dr Gavin, the logical scientist who is instantly convinced that they are the terrible deeds of a previously undiscovered sea beast. It is even stranger that these monsters are defeated by sodium, the sixth most common element on Earth, and a substantial component in salt.
When The Horror of Party Beach was first released, cinema patrons had to sign a “fright release,” which absolved management of any responsibility should they be literally scared to death. Today, it’s doubtful any viewer will be so sheltered from contemporary levels of gore that dying is a possibility, but it is an enjoyable, daft, kitsch affair that continues to entertain. Michael Weldon describes it as a “low budget gem” and a “cool classic” in The Psychotronic Encylopedia of Film, while Stephen King includes it amongst his favourite films. And with that, everybody do the zombie stomp, doo-doo-doo-doop!