The horror genre has seen its fair share of special effects masters, with few names instantly conjuring as many memories among fans than Tom Savini. Whether it be his undead ghouls in the original Dawn of the Dead, the machete victims of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, or his on-screen appearances in films like From Dusk Till Dawn and Machete, Savini has cemented himself in the echelons of horror as one of its most colorful and creative characters. The artist's work was chronicled in the documentary Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini, which is currently exclusively streaming on Shudder.
In the film, "Special Makeup effects legend, actor, director and stuntman Tom Savini has redefined the horror genre with his arsenal of talents. But who is the man behind the 'KING OF SPLATTER?' From his childhood in Pittsburgh to his tour of duty during Vietnam, to his beginnings with George A. Romero and beyond, Smoke and Mirrors is the defining documentary on the life and career of a horror icon. Featuring: Tom Savini, Danny McBride, Robert Rodriguez, Danny Trejo, Alice Cooper, George A. Romero, Greg Nicotero, Sid, Haig, Doug Bradley, Caroline Williams, Jerry Only, Tom Atkins, Jerry Only, Corey Feldman, Howard Berger, and more."
One of Savini's close friends and frequent collaborators Greg Nicotero, producer of The Walking Dead and creator of Shudder's Creepshow series, recently weighed in on the artist's impact on the genre, his personality behind the scenes, and his favorite special effect.
ComicBook.com: Your history with Tom goes back decades. Do you remember your first time meeting him?
Greg Nicotero: I do. I met [filmmaker] George [Romero] before I ever met Tom. I think the first time that I ever really saw Tom and had a preliminary, "Hey, my name's Greg Nicotero," was at a convention in Pittsburgh after Dawn of the Dead had come out. So that would've been spring of '78, maybe? I'm trying to remember when Dawn of the Dead came out. But it was a convention and Tom was there and that was the first time that I had ever met him. It was very ... I don't think he would have ever remembered that. Ultimately, when George had invited me to visit the set of Creepshow, that's when Tom and I's friendship really struck up because I would go visit the filming location in Monroeville[, Pennsylvania] and would hang out in Tom's lab. That's when we really got to be friends.
That was your first interaction with him in any capacity, but do you remember what it was like the first time you worked with him in a more professional capacity, where he was your peer as opposed to merely being an admirer of his work?
When I was visiting the set of Creepshow, Tom was one of the kinds of guys that would always take photos of everything, because he was a photographer. He would always shoot videos of everything. When he was testing the saliva tubes in the drool for Fluffy, I was there helping him do that. I was visiting, but he's like, "Hey, I got to test this, will you help me out with it?" So I was pumping liquid through the slime tubes in the under skull for Fluffy's face. And that was, again, I was just visiting, but that was like, "Oh, hey, you're here. Do you want to give me a hand doing this?" So between Creepshow and Day of the Dead is when we developed our friendship. Then when Day of the Dead came up, it was really George Romero and Christine [Romero] who had said, "Hey, we got a free spot on Day of the Dead. Do you want a job?" And I was like, "Yeah, I want to be Tom's assistant and work with him."
So in that interim, between 1981 and 84, was really when we became friends, but I officially was paid to work for him on Day of the Dead.
After becoming friends with him and seeing his professional approach to special effects, was there anything that surprised you once you were on the "inside"?
No, because I think ultimately what I always was intrigued by with Tom, but I think it's really relevant in the title of the documentary, is that Tom approached everything like it was a magic trick. That was one of the things that I was always intrigued by. The perfect example is the machete in the head in Dawn of the Dead. You see him pull the machete out and you reveal it to be a full machete. And then there's that up angle where he does that violent swing downwards towards Lenny Lies and then you flip around and there's the reverse shot of the fake machete with the little crescent cutout put on his head and pulling it away. So Tom used every trick in the book to create and craft these illusions.
And even when you, in the next shot in that sequence, cut to Savini struggling to pull the machete out because it was dug in pretty deep into his head, all those little nuances make that gag work. And it's all there to convince the audience that what they're seeing is real. That the character actually embedded a machete into the performer's head as opposed to it being a trick. I think all of that comes from Tom's theatrical background. It comes from his training as an actor at Carnegie Mellon. It comes from his training as a magician and his desire and interest in actually using those texts and techniques to create special effects makeup. That I think is something that always set Tom aside from everyone else.
The way Tom used his own experiences, largely the death and trauma he witnessed in the Vietnam War, to motivate some of his techniques is something I feel sets him apart from many of his peers. While there are many great effects artists throughout history, what do you think it is that makes his work so unique? Would it be the "magic trick" of it all?
I think there's a combination between that and the hyper-realism. Even though in the '70s, this was before everybody used Dick Smith's makeup recipe for blood. They would get blood from the 3M company and that's why the blood, in a lot of those '70s movies, looked like melted crayons. But with Tom's work, it was unflinching ... and the amount of blood that would pump out of things. The fact that Tom used to say to me all the time, "There's nothing more real than the real thing." So in Dawn of the Dead, when they tear Taso Stavrakis' stomach open and you see the entrails in there, just the way that the skin tore and you see the entrails in there, it's not immediately gory, but then the blood seems to soak up from underneath the organs was something that I was really always fascinated with, because it looked real. In this day and age, most people would sculpt silicone intestines and they would work out all these different ways to do it.
Tom was basically a one-man operation. Aside from, up until Day of the Dead, I think Day of the Dead was really the first time that Tom had a real crew. He had Darryl Ferrucci on Creepshow and he had Jeannie Jeffries on Dawn of the Dead, but Tom was a one-man crew. A lot of the stuff that he did, he was calling Dick Smith all the time and getting suggestions and ideas from Dick about how to execute things. And, honestly, I do think that that was one of the things that led to Dick Smith releasing his makeup effects Bible to potential students because everybody was so inspired by Dick that they would utilize his recipes for gelatin and his recipes for blood.
Tom had a binder of pamphlets that Dick Smith had sent him in terms of how to make this material and how to make that material and how to make a material called "Elvacite," which was like this plastic material that you could actually pump blood through, so that you could do very, very thin prosthetics. Even in Dawn of the Dead, Tom had done a lot of gags like Dick had done in The Godfather where he had used morticians wax and buttons with monofilament on it. So you'd pull the monofilament off and it would reveal the bullet hole in the head.
Tom was really not only a student of magic and a student of trickery, but he was really in awe of Dick Smith. And Dick was such a generous artist that he, a lot of times, shared a lot of his techniques with other people, like Rick Baker and like Tom and a lot of us makeup artists. So I think a lot of it really was that Tom was just ravenous for finding new ways to fool the audience.
If Tom had instead decided to pursue a career as a photographer, what do you think would have happened to the genre?
Well, I could tell you that there would probably be a third fewer makeup effects artists in the world. But, at that time, Tom was the poster boy for Fangoria magazine. There were a lot of makeup effects artists who saw Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th and Maniac and The Burning and Monkey Shines and saw a lot of Tom's work, and that inspired them. It was probably from like the mid-'70s to '85, in my opinion, the most prolific in terms of special effects makeup. Between Rob Bottin and Rick Baker and Stan Winston and Tom Savini, those were the stars of the movies. American Werewolf in London and The Thing and The Howling and all those films, really, the filmmakers embraced the special effects makeup aspect of it. If Tom had decided to pursue another course, I know there would have been a tremendous amount of people who would not have been as inspired because they were not influenced by Tom's work. And me being one of them.
The documentary, in addition to his on-screen roles, gives us a taste of the passion and enthusiasm Savini brings to everything. Is there something about him that you know as a friend that you think fans would be surprised to discover?
Aside from being a great makeup artist and a professional, he loves movies. Loves movies. He still, every weekend, goes out and sees everything that's out there. I love that about him. I love that he really still loves it and he's so passionate about it. I think that's what's really interesting to me about Tom, and people will realize, that he does it because it's just pure love for cinema. And that I think, really, a lot of us, I'm sure at some point in our careers, grew up loving monsters and grew up loving horror movies and grew up loving all that stuff. I never thought about it when I was going to the movies, when I was a kid and saw War of the Worlds and The Time Machine and Horror of Dracula on TV and watched Chiller Theater.
I would have never imagined in a million years that I would have ended up being in the film industry. I think it was just out of sheer love for the movies and love for the craft that allowed me to find my way into the industry. I think Tom was the same way. The fact that George Romero worked in Pittsburgh and lived a half an hour away from Tom and a half an hour away from me, that allowed us to follow this passion that we loved. It really is fascinating to me that Tom still, to this day, he really loves movies ... loves, loves it. I think it shows in the work that put him on the map, was that he just was so enamored with it. I think that really is the one thing that a lot of people will take away from the documentary.
Is there any effect or gag from his career that you are especially impressed or surprised by? Or one that you're envious that you didn't come up with?
I think the zombie bites that he came up with on the original Dawn of the Dead, the first scene in the tenement building where the zombie bites into the girl's shoulder and then bites into her arm. Those literally almost had me running from the theater. I just didn't expect it. I had never seen it. And, again, knowing that Tom was a one-man operation, you look at him now and you can see, "Oh, well, I can see a little bit of foam there. I can see this." But it doesn't matter. None of it matters because what matters is the impact that it had on you at the exact moment when you saw it for the first time. That's what I will always remember about Tom's work and especially Dawn of the Dead. From that moment on, I never trusted George and I never trusted Tom in the movie because I didn't know what I was in store for.
And I think that was a really fascinating thing for me because was that happens in the first 12 minutes. I have no idea what was coming at me for the next two hours and 10 minutes or whatever and I was terrified. I always really attributed the success of Dawn of the Dead to that. Because it was just so ... I really did not know where the hell that movie was going next.
You enlisted Tom to direct an episode of Creepshow and have another season on the way, but do you two ever talk about a dream project that you wish could bring to life?
We talk about a lot of stuff that we love to do, but we haven't really talked about, like, "Oh, we've got to do this or we've got to do this project together." I've been in Walking Dead and Creepshow world for so long. I just wanted to make sure that when we [did Creepshow,] that it was my opportunity to thank him and to really pay back what I felt was a fantastic opportunity that Tom gave me.
Any chance that he will be coming back to direct anything for Season Two?
I mean, it's still early. We're basically putting stories together now, so we're just developing the second season. We literally are just starting because I had not finished Walking Dead until yesterday, I finished editing the last episode, the finale. So I wasn't able to really get into stories. But there's some great stuff coming up and it's going to be super exciting. It's super early right now for talking about the second season.
Since you and Tom both love movies, as we come to the end of the year, did you have any favorite horror films of 2019?
Oh, boy, I'm trying to remember some of the stuff that I saw. I liked Midsommar. I like [director] Ari Aster's movies. I was a huge fan of Hereditary, which, by the way, Tom did not like. I told him I loved it and he looked at me like I was a murderer. But I'm trying to think of what other horror movies came out this year.
I haven't seen IT CHAPTER TWO yet, which I'm really excited for. I loved the first one, but everyone's like, "Oh, you should stay away from it." But I'll see it. I really liked Brightburn. I don't think a lot of people actually saw.
The marketing campaign was a little strange because it would always describe it as being from James Gunn, but he only produced it.
Yeah, it's a really good movie too. I've got to be honest, I haven't seen a lot. I'm looking at lists. I haven't seen The Lighthouse yet, which I really want to see. Midsommar, I saw. Us, I saw. I love Joker, which Tom hated.
And as we approached the holidays, are there any particular favorite holiday horror movies you watch each year?
Every Christmas Eve I watch a Universal classic. I usually watch like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or House of Dracula or Creature from the Black Lagoon. I don't know how, but sometime I just got myself into this groove where I found myself watching classic Universal monster movies on Christmas Eve. So that's what I'll be doing again this year.
I found myself annually watching John Carpenter movies every Easter for no real reason. Then I realized that, while some people celebrate one carpenter, I celebrate another. You don't always know how these things start.
Oh, that's so funny. Yeah, I don't know why. Listen, I think it's so hard to say, because you know, we're so driven by our passions and we're so driven by this stuff that we love. I just feel fortunate that we get to celebrate it. And I think now that Rick Baker's book is out and Tom is putting another book out and there's so much great stuff out there that people get to celebrate. And the nice thing is, when I come home from Walking Dead, I get to sniff around like, "Oh, there's this cool Dracula figure that I've been working on that's finished and this and that." And so, between November and March, my horror collection flourishes and then I go back on The Walking Dead and I can't collect anything for awhile. I can't dig stuff up.
Then I come back and it's like my "Get Out of Jail" card for a little while and I run around and acquire a bunch of new props or update that I have in my collection. It never ceases to amaze me how inspired I get by being able to admire the artistry of makeup effects artists and creature designers. I'm still inspired by them and still inspired by it on a constant, constant basis. I feel very fortunate about that.
My experience witnessing effects artists mostly comes from SYFY's Face Off series, but that show depicted how supportive the artists all were for each other, even when competing. It really seems like a unique field where everyone feeds off of one another's creativity and positivity.
I think that all started with Dick Smith because I think Dick Smith, for him, he wanted the art form to flourish. He always was completely willing to share his techniques and secrets with so many people. I think that's a huge, a huge attribute to who these artists are today. And I know between Tom and Rick and all these guys that Dick's generosity really helped to channel that into being the artists that they are.0comments
Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini is streaming now on Shudder.
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