Column written by Andrew Durand
Makeup and special effects in movies, especially horror films, has been around from the beginning. I recently wrote an article about the 1922 film Nosferatu and in that column I mentioned the brilliant makeup effects that were done to Max Schrenk. That work made him appear as the demonic vampire Nosferatu. Oddly, such talent may have been Schrenk himself. No one is really quite sure. But since then, makeup work in genre cinema has been just as important as the actor himself. Such trailblazers as Lon Chaney, Sr. are well known. As are Stan Winston, Dick Smith, and Christopher Tucker. But I wanted to discuss another such trailblazer. His name is Tom Savini.
Tom Savini’s origin, being from Pittsburgh, PA, was probably a bit of luck, but circumstances sometimes set people on their journey. That city of course is well known for such things as pierogies, steel, Mean Joe Greene, Heinz ketchup, Willie Stargell, Iron City Beer … and zombies? That’s right, some call it the zombie capital of the world. With George Romero and his crew making the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead there, it was all but established that the city would be known for that so-called “dubious” honor.
Independent do-it-yourself horror films by a group of visionaries that worked and lived in Pittsburgh set up opportunities. Many other young filmmakers would be able join them in their further productions. For Tom Savini, that was his gateway into filmmaking. Not surprisingly he considered Lon Chaney, Sr. as his hero. As a young boy he saw the bio-pic Man of A Thousand Faces (1957) which inspired him to, at the very least, focus on special effects as a hobby if not more. Luckily George Romero and crew were working on another low budget production in Tom’s hometown. This allowed Savini (at the age of thirty-two) to join the production of the 1978 quasi-vampire thriller, Martin, his first movie.
Savini contributed special effects for Romero during filming of Martin including a gruesome wrist-slashing scene that helped get the movie eventually added to the UK Video Nasty list. Though his acting career is not as celebrated, Martin was also Tom Savini’s acting debut where he played a pivotal supporting role of the character Arthur. From there he would work on many of the legendary director’s films in a number of capacities, including the Dawn of the Dead (1978), Knightriders (1981), Creepshow (1982), Day of the Dead (1985), Monkey Shines (1988), and Two Evil Eyes (1990).
Though his collaborations with George Romero were well known, they weren’t the only films Savini worked on in the heyday of horror cinema. To be frank, his gore effects for Dawn of the Dead were legendary. Because of them, he was able to become the star that he is now. Yet with all that behind him, his huge breakthrough is probably the Sean Cunningham classic movie Friday the 13th (1980) where he revolutionized the slasher horror subgenre forever. Some would even say he revolutionized cinema as a whole. Suddenly the ugly movie that was considered drive-in trash was now mainstream. And a handful of those films are now considered iconic movies in history.
Savini’s work on other cult classics turns out to be a list of who’s-who of 1980’s and 1990’s midnight movies. They include William Lustig’s 1980 character study Maniac, the Weinstein brother’s first film The Burning (1981), the AGFA’s recently remastered grindhouse film Effects (1980), Jennifer Jason Leigh’s film debut Eyes of a Stranger (1981), Joseph Zito’s successful The Prowler (1981), and the iconic director Dario Argento’s Trauma (1993), just to name a few.
At this point in my tribute to Mr. Savini, i think it is time to talk a bit about his other work in cinema. As mentioned, Tom also had a passion for acting. While in college, he was the very first undergraduate to at the prestigious Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh to receive a full fellowship in their acting and directing program. One wonders if this got the attention of George Romero when he brought him onboard. In many cases he was able to perform his own stunts. As a hobby, he was a tournament fencer which he was able to translate to stunt work. Never necessarily a leading man, he had pivotal parts in a number of other films including Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk till Dawn (1996), Planet Terror (2007), and Machete (2010). But one knows you really made it when you play yourself in the animated series The Simpsons (2001).
To round out his career, about that directing work that he was awarded while in college? Well, why not try doing it for real? Having worked in films for a few decades now, he went on and headed the 1990 remake of George A. Romero’s classic film Night of the Living Dead. Though not as well received as the original, the movie has been re-evaluated by the modern critic as an exceptional turn in cult cinema. Keeping to the spirit of the original, the film becomes its own thing and has even been called a feminist movie (whether intentional or not). Oddly the movie didn’t get the support from the producers that Savini had hoped. Some tales say those same producers were actually meddling with Tom’s vision. As a result much of Savini’s ideas unfortunately were left in the script. The aggravation that resulted caused him to turn away from directing; a very unfortunate consequence for the rest of us.
His personal life has also been outstanding. He married wife Nancy in 1984 and plans to celebrate his thirty-seventh marriage anniversary this year. At the age of 74, he is very close to his three children and is a loving grandfather. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was well known by followers and fanzines that he would do trips to Disney World with them. Another aspect of his life was his service to his country. While still in college, he took time off to enlist in the U.S. Army. His military service brought him to Vietnam where he became a combat photographer. His work resulted in many honors including a Saturn Award. And lastly he has his own special effects school at the Douglas Education Center in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monessen, Pennsylvania. Do you want to get into filmmaking? This may be a place to start.
Tom Savini is a living legend in horror and genre cinema. Busy as ever before COVID-19, he was a regular attendee at conventions where he met and socialized with his many fans. Though semi-retired now, he still works in films and his school for special effects. One can only hope that we can once again see him in person rather than the present virtual conventions that he may appear at. For further information on him and his life, I would highly recommend the 2019 documentary on his life, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini. It can be found on such streaming services as Shudder. (Yup, he even has his own documentary!!!!) But also check out his personal website where he updates often with news and photos related to his work.