The Mad Ghoul was a zombie film before we knew what zombies were
The Mad Ghoul (1943) is a second-feature B-Movie, a strange Universal flick that tried reaching for the heights of B-Movie glory. Back when double-features were popular, The Mad Ghoul fit in quite nicely, and it first ran as second-feature to Son of Dracula (1943), starring Lon Chaney Jr. However, The Mad Ghoul doesn’t even have that kind of actor pedigree to rely on, but does have a pretty decent cast nonetheless. Perhaps the most notable thing about this movie is that it is the first zombie film from Universal, and it signaled the decline of their monster movies.
Before George Romero defined what a zombie is for everyone on Earth, there were other American movies that used the concept. Revenge of the Zombies (1943), White Zombie (1932), and Valley of the Zombies (1946), all used some loose zombie concept, and a majority used voodoo or mysticism to conjure up hypnotized killers. Romero relied on the Italian definition of a zombie, while Universal and other studios came up with their own concept. All had similar threads though.
The movie begins with a University lecture about the Mayan use of a poison gas to summon the undead, or to conjure “life in death”, whatever that means. The Professor later recruits one of his students to help him with an experiment, in order to finish work to duplicate the talents of the Mayans. The student, Ted, just about worships the Professor, and can’t see his supervillainy coming. The movie then breaks into a musical number.
The Professor tells Ted that he has already succeeded in bringing a monkey back from the dead, which was no surprise to me. But he’s more concerned with his pupil’s young girlfriend Isabel, the singer who gave the musical number from before. He drops more innuendo than you can shake a stick at, but she’s oblivious. The Professor then decides to plot against Ted, in order to get his paws on Isabel. He turns him into a hypnotized zombie killer using the gas.
Unfortunately for the pervert Professor, the effects of the zombie gas are only temporary. However, Ted relapses and becomes a mindless zombie ghoul whenever he’s under stress, but it’s hard for the Professor to control him. The Professor can’t keep track of Ted even when he’s awake, cause the guy is love-sick for Isabel, and she’s on a musical tour. Ted follows her around and police get suspicious as more murders pile up along Isabel’s tour route.
The movie descends into the world of the strange soap opera. Isabel starts a relationship with a new guy named Eric, but the Professor is jealous, and zombie Ted tries to kill him. Two detectives then join the action, they set a booby trap for Ted, but Ted discovers his own evil and he attacks the Professor. Then there’s some complicated back and forth, and it gets really weighed down in dialogue. Ted turns the gas on the Professor, then the police gun down the ghoul and Ted dies. Or something. Whew.
This film is not a Poverty Row film. I’ve been reading about this type of film, which are a special subset of the 50s horror genre. They were often produced on the cheap and as quickies for hotels, much shorter and smaller in scope than even The Man Ghoul. The name Poverty Row is a nickname for studios who exclusively produced these low-budget films, such as Monogram Pictures. Most often, a Poverty Row film had an attractive lead, as well as grisly or lurid details. The Mad Ghoul follows the pattern of a Poverty Row film, including the use of melodramatic relationships, but it is longer and has a better cast.
The cast of this movie is fairly decent. The Professor is played by George Zucco, a veteran English actor. His performance is alright, but he needs to tone it down a little, because he’s a one-dimensional supervillain from start to finish. David Bruce arguably does a better job, but his acting as the ghoul is very one-note and silly. Evelyn Ankers was a star of other Universal horror movies, and she does a good job as Isabel. Turhan Bey plays Eric, and he gets a leading man’s billing, even though he is only in half the movie. Lucky him.
All in all, this is a pretty forgettable horror movie, which is probably why it has been forgotten. It is not that bad, but it is not that good either. It has good dialogue, but you better be patient, cause there is a lot of it. This movie reminded me of those horror comics by EC Comics that were done back in the 50s, but those were way more colorful and tense. Today, this movie appeals to zombie fans who want to study the history of the genre, but I guess Universal monster movie lovers can appreciate it too. It kinda bored me though, and it never picked up the pace or delivered any worthwhile drama.