The beach is a constant in our imagining of a peaceful summer holiday. The heat of the sand beneath you and the relentless warmth of the sun above. Behind you, a weird little town full of weird little people and their odd, disturbing shops. Ahead, an endless stretch of ocean and everything that lies beneath it. It’s the beach, and it’s where everyone likes to flock for fun. And what’s not to like? The warmth of the sun feels just as good as the cool water, there’s beach volleyball, chip trucks fries, and the soothing sounds of water lapping at the shore. Of course, there are also weird creatures pulling you down through the sand to feast on your tasty flesh, sharks, psychotic cannibals, and a whole host of monsters that come out of the surf to murder you.
“Beach movies” were a popular genre in the early 1960s. The best known of the bunch, Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), survives to be referenced in the 21st Century. Horror films have an especially complicated relationship with beaches, since horror films themselves are primarily concerned with life and death. The beach, the beach town, and the open water form an axis that brings characters in and either kills them or sends them away, forever changed. Below are ten examples of horror set within this axis, where death and mayhem ensue from something so simple and common as a holiday to the beach.
10. Blood Beach (1981)
Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, you can’t even get to it!
Venice Beach, California is terrorized by a creature that lurks under the sand and pulls wayward beach-goers down to their doom. Harry Caulder (David Huffman, four years before his tragic murder) is a beach cop who suspects something is up once a young girl is saved after being only partially eaten. The real scenery-chewer though, is Burt Young (Rocky) playing police sergeant Royko. Young was very obviously told to nail home, without question, that his character is a recent transfer from Chicago. The result is a cigar-chomping, slumped Al Capone caricature who steals every scene he appears in.
Despite being a film called Blood Beach, there’s shockingly little blood in it. There’s a little bit of spray on the sand after a victim gets sucked under, sure, but for the most part it’s a bloodless horror film, relying on soundtrack and atmosphere to convey terror. It’s a great example of beach horror: people come to the beach to die, horribly. It also features a good look at the crowded squalor of a beach town. Unlike similar films Blood Beach seems fully formed with tourists, townies, and little beach front shops. In fact, one of the best scenes in the movie is a throwaway where “Sgt. Chicago” tells a chip truck woman that in Chicago they unionized all the greasy spoon owners. If profits fell off because, say, a creature was prowling the beach and murdering tourists, then everyone could help out until the crisis had passed. Really makes you think, doesn’t it?
9. The Horror of Party Beach (1964)
The Horror Of Party Beach, made to capitalize on the then-hot beach movie trend, raises a number of very interesting questions. Did people always out on the beach, suddenly and without warning? When did we stop having live performances by teenage bands at beach parties? Why do the bikers – an actual motorcycle club, by the way – look suspiciously like Sonic Youth fans circa 1990? And of course: Is this whole film just a way to slip an environmental warning about the future to teenagers?
Often cited in lists like these as “one of the worst movies ever made,” The Horror Of Party Beach is definitely one of those movies where Terrible slingshots around the sun and comes back around as Amazing. A bunch of toxic chemicals get dumped in the ocean off the East Coast and a mutated monster (the 16 year old kid of the production assistant in a rubber suit) rises from the water. First he kills an unsuspecting swimmer, then he kills most of a sorority slumber party (complete with pillow fight, naturally). The rest of it unfolds exactly as you might with scientists, teenagers, and the accidental discovery of How To Kill It.
The Horror Of Party Beach was created to exploit the teenage beach film trend, but that’s not to say it’s trash. The message director Del Tenney is conveying here is both “give me money” and “stop dumping waste in the ocean.” The idea being that if we mess with the environment, the environment will also mess with us. While that’s also the basic conceit of Godzilla movies, it goes a cut above by juxtaposing the freewheeling fun of the beach against the horrors awaiting us in the water.
8. The Mutilator (1984)
We’re goin’ on a Fall Break! Reminding us eternally that the beach isn’t just for summer, The Mutilator is the epitome of every low-budget regional slasher film that splattered over the Eighties. A bunch of college kids with nothing to do for Fall Break decide to go help Ed Jr. close up his dad’s beachfront condo for the winter. Of course, Ed Sr. is a drunken trophy hunter who blames Ed Jr. for accidentally killing his wife/Ed’s mother, but don’t let that worry you!
The beach plays a big role in the film, of course. It’s the entire reason for agreeing to shut down crazy Big Ed’s condo in the first place. Most of the characters end up going on long beach walks for romance (and convenience) but there is some real creepiness going on in those scenes, too. The surf pounds at the sand relentlessly, it’s already dark by the time our characters are walking out there, and the appearance of the beach cop only makes things creepier, rather than more secure. As in each of these films, the beach is a place where people come to die horribly in Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator.
7. Piranha 3D (2010)
There are five Piranha movies and they are all pretty much the same. They’re beach horror movies with their tongues firmly planted in cheek. There’s a summer resort where all the horny young kids come to party. There’s sun, sand, water, skin, and lethal genetically modified piranhas. That last item, as you might imagine, causes significant problems with the enjoyment of the first four.
What ensues is a bloodbath of bathers being eaten alive by piranhas, some fun-sounding psuedo-scientific explanations, a few half-cocked plans to deal with it, and an unsettling twist ending. The formula works exceedingly well, both as a Roger Corman-produced B-movie knockoff of Jaws and as Alexandre Aja’s recent version. Piranha 3D, is the one to watch though. It’s exactly what you expect it to be and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Plus, they somehow managed to rope in Richard Dreyfuss, Elisabeth Shue, Jerry O’Connell, Ving Rhames, and a typically scene-stealing Christopher Lloyd. What else can you ask for in a campy blood-and-sex romp?
6. The Lost Boys (1987)
Santa Clara is the Beach Town, stripped of the Annette Funicello sheen and aged out of Aquarius. It’s a congested little settlement, full of bizarre little shops and overrun with near-feral gangs of kids. It’s the sort of swarming, strange place you might expect to find the Necronomicon tucked away in some cursed book store. The opening sequence shows off the grit and the grime of the town. People are strange, indeed. It’s one of the best opening sequences in film history, showing us exactly the kind of crawling chaos we’re to expect as the movie unfolds. While the rest of the film is a pitch-perfect Eighties teen monster romp, and while every actor puts in a boffo performance, it’s the town of Santa Clara itself that solidifies The Lost Boys as a beach horror classic.
The epitome of this is the scene wherein Our Unsuspecting Teenage Heroes come to a beach party. This isn’t the beach parties of the Sixties, with cutesy little rock ‘n’ roll bands and clean-cut teenagers mixing it up with weirdly clean-cut bikers. This is the Party Apocalyptic! A fire-breathing pop-funk celebration where the freaks gather on the beach and groove in the darkness. If you’ve ever read Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus (and if you haven’t, you should), then you’ll be able to draw a clear line between the party in Santa Clara and the party on the beach in Los Angeles where the protagonists kidnap a toddler. Someone probably kidnapped a toddler in The Lost Boys though. Off-camera of course. Santa Clara is just that kind of place.
5. Zombi 2 (1979)
Italians do many things well, but two things especially well: disco and horror movies. Fulci’s Zombi 2 (billed as Zombie in the United States) is the ultimate beach zombie flick. A gorgeous beachy Carribbean island has a voodoo curse that causes the dead to rise as flesh-eating zombies. This is kept under wraps by a scientist bent on unraveling the mysteries. Eventually this remote scientific project gets overwhelmed. When a seemingly deserted ship floats into New York’s harbour with a pair of zombies on board, a reporter and the daughter of one of the zombies team up to figure out what’s going on. And what’s going on (of course) is that flesh is being eaten by the dead.
The juxtaposition of the beach paradise with the shambling dead is what makes this film the perfect example of beach horror. Early on, the protagonists interrupt a couple’s romantic ocean getaway trip by hitching a ride. Rather than finding bliss on the beach, though, almost everyone ends up being torn apart by rotting zombie teeth. Now that’s a beach horror vacation! Plus, there’s a lengthy scene here where an underwater zombie literally fights a shark. What else could you want??
4. Open Water (2003)
Open Water is what happens when you are silly enough to leave the beach once you get there. Two vacationing divers go out with a boat, but the boat leaves without them. They float in the water for a while, slowly losing hope that anyone will notice them missing.Then, they’re eaten by sharks.
There are a few things that are wrong with Open Water. The acting is sub-par, although it’s like that on purpose. It gives you a sense that these are real people, and not just actors. Since the whole concept is based on a real story, it conveys that true-to-life ideal. Still, the couple portrayed are often awkward, stilted, and painfully middle class. What the film gets right is beyond all that, though. There are stretches of Open Water that are physically uncomfortable to watch. The idea of being caught out in the open ocean with no real hope of rescue is horrifying. The slow-roasted panic that sets in feels visceral, and you feel like you’re there with them.
There’s nothing supernatural going on here, just real life, and that’s frightening enough.
3. Anthropophagus (1980)
The Greek Islands have long been a place for wealthy Europeans to flock for fun and sun. The beaches are relaxing, rarely crowded, and the towns have that mysterious old world charm to them. They are, in short, beach town AND beach rolled into one. A vacation there is sure to be a success. Unless, of course, it’s haunted by a cannibal!
Anthropophagus, perhaps the most infamous of the “video nasties” that bedevilled UK censors, starts off on the beach. A couple have come to relax and have some sand-and-surf fun. Unfortunately, no one ever told them that people go to the beach to die. Klaus, the cannibal (played by co-writer George Eastman), emerges from the water to kill and devour the both of them. He then proceeds to do the same thing to almost everyone in the tiny island town. Then, when the couple’s friends finally catch up, he chows his way through most of them too.
Anthropophagus is notable not just for it’s contemporary dedication to gore. It’s also one hell of a beach horror film, right from it’s opening moments. It’s the example of coming to the beach to die. You’re swimming along, minding your own business and having some fun. Suddenly you’re getting dragged under the water and murdered. Your boyfriend has no idea until a blood-soaked cannibal comes out of the waves to kill you. There’s no rhyme or reason. There is only blood.
2. Welcome To Arrow Beach (1974)
Welcome To Arrow Beach is both a fine example of beach horror and a somewhat late warning to the hippie generation. “Sure,” it says, “you can float freely through America in search of fame and adventure, but beware. Being alone and free is still being alone.” Hippie girl Robbin comes to Arrow Beach after hitching a ride with a cokehead who manages to get into a wild car accident five minutes after picking her up. Wandering, she comes to the beach where she (of course) strips down and goes swimming. Unfortunately for her, she catches the attention of a Korean War veteran who came out of that conflict with a taste for human flesh.
The film prefers to creep rather than grab for most of it’s runtime, except for a few key scenes. The sight of director/cannibal Laurence Harvey holding a cleaver with a wild-eyed expression is both shocking and creepy when it finally happens. Even creepier is the fact that Harvey was literally dying while he filmed these scenes. He passed from stomach cancer in 1973, after the movie was finished but before it was released. When his expression is pained and desperate on-camera, consider it real.
1. Jaws (1975)
Saving the most obvious for last- Jaws is the beach horror flick by which all others are compared. Sure, films like The Shallows (2016) or 47 Meters Down (2017) feature stylish actresses going toe-to-toe with sharks, but none of those had the cultural impact that Jaws had when it first came out. It was a pivotal moment for both movies and the beach in general. The first of the long wave of Big Summer Blockbusters, it has been seen and re-seen en masse. So many people saw it and internalized it’s horrifying scenes that it effected their daily lives. Shark sightings went up. Beach attendance went down. People started thinking that sharks were evil killing machines, a prejudice that exists even today. Thanks, Spielberg.
No subsequent shark movie has held a candle to the original, especially not the execrable sequels. When it comes to the beach horror axis, Jaws covers the bases. You die on the beach. You die in the open water. The shark is going to get you regardless: it’s relentless, brutal, and out for human flesh. It is the arbiter of the beach, the border guard between life and death. It puts the lie in the idea of the frolic and fun of the beach vacation. Sure, there’s sunbathing, and swimming, and volleyball. There’s also sharp teeth and bloody death, and that’s where Jaws excels. There aren’t many films that can say they made an entire generation fear sunshine and waves, but Jaws is among that rare few.
What is your favourite Beach Horror Film? Let us know on any of the social media links below and please…stay safe out there swimmers. You never know what is lurking just below the surface.