Special effects artist, actor, stunt man, director, teacher, mentor... While these titles can best describe this Horror Icon's career, none really do him justice, especially when it comes to describing the influence he has had on, not just the horror genre but film in general.
Ladies and gentle fiends, I give you the Sultan of Splatter, the Godfather of Gore; Mr. Tom Savini.
Born as Thomas Vincent Savini on November 3rd, 1946 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tom was heavily influenced by Lon Chaney, looking up to the actor from a very young age. Savini attributes his earliest desires to create makeup effects to Chaney and the film Man of a Thousand Faces.
Experimenting with whatever medium he could find, Tom practiced creating makeup effects on himself, later convincing his friends to let him practice his craft on them. He also discovered another passion, acting. Combining his makeup applications and homemade costumes, he especially enjoyed scaring his friends. Tom attended Point Park University for three years, before enlisting in the United States Army.
Tom served as a combat photographer during the Vietnam War. Though horrific, the images he witnessed (and photographed), Tom's creativity grew as he continued to practice with makeup, often frightening indigenous peasants by appearing to suddenly transform into a "monster".
Tom has said his wartime experiences influenced his eventual style of gory effects: "I hated that when I watched a war movie and someone dies. Some people die with one eye open and one eye half-closed, sometimes people die with smiles on their faces because the jaw is always slack. I incorporated the feeling of the stuff I saw in Vietnam into my work."
After his tour in Vietnam, he attended Carnegie-Mellon University, as the first undergraduate to be awarded a full fellowship in the acting and directing program.
His first work was in low-budget fare, providing SFX and make-up for independently made horror films such as Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974). I'll be honest, I actually love this film. Based on the Ed Gein case, a deranged rural farmer becomes a grave robber and murderer after the death of his possessive mother, whose corpse he keeps, among others, as his companion in a decaying farmhouse. Tom Savini once said in an interview that the corpses in the film were made using plastic skull kits which were glued to bodies built of chicken wire and painted cotton. The faces were created by taking plaster castings of various relatives of the crew. The film may have been low-budget, but it was quite effective. And for those of you, like me, who have a slight obsession with serial killers, this was the most accurate portrayal of Ed Gein's life until the release of 2000's Ed Gein.
Dead of the Night (1974) was another low-budget film that received the early Savini touch. That was followed up by Martin (1977), which Savini not only worked on as a makeup artist, but also performed some stunts as well as starring in the film alongside George A. Romero. This would become the first of many collaborations between the two.
If you haven't seen Martin, I do highly recommend it. George A. Romero may be known for his work with zombies, but Martin sees him deliver the same intensity, creating one of the best vampire films available.
In 1978, Dawn of the Dead hit cinemas. Savini had a small role in the film as a Motorcycle Raider named Blades (a role he reprised in zombie form with a cameo appearance in the 2005 continuation of the series, Land of the Dead) but also worked off camera to create some pretty memorable makeup special effects.
He pulled double duty again, both as an actor and makeup artist, for Maniac in 1980. That same year, Tom created the face only a mother could love. Yes, he is responsible for the look of young Jason Voorhees. Tom was also responsible for the effects of the kills in this classic slasher. He was also uncredited for acting out a kill himself, and for playing Brenda as her body comes crashing through the window near the climax of the film.
I cannot talk about Tom Savini and not mention two fantastic cult films where he worked in the SFX department; The Burning and The Prowler. I love both of these films and rank them as a must see. Not only are they fun to watch, but Savini's work, and the work of the whole makeup department, really shine through. What would be considered "simplistic" by today's standards, really add to the tension and overall horrific feel of the movies. I actually rank The Prowler as my favorite film that Savini has worked on.
Tom returned to Crystal Lake in 1984's Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Giving a grown up Jason a whole new look, Savini also worked on the kills, even going as far as to portray Jason when killing off the hitchhiker. Yes, the one eating the banana. That was Savini.
The following year, he teamed up again with Romero for Day of the Dead. Not playing a role this time around, Savini stuck to makeup, bringing back the effects we've come to know and love of the film franchise.
In 1990, Savini stepped into the director’s chair, remaking George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead. One of the very few remakes I actually enjoy, this film is now a must watch. Ranking almost as highly as the original, Savini proved himself worthy of being a director.
At this point in time, Savini extending his acting credits, appearing in Creepshow 2 (he also appeared in Creepshow), Heartstopper, Innocent Blood and The Demolitionist. But it was his role in 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn that got people talking. Playing Sex Machine, complete with crotch gun, Savini pulled no punches - literally - as his character became a cult icon. I have friends who aren't into the horror genre, and even they know who Sex Machine is.
As the 90's ended and the 00's rolled around, Savini found himself more in front of the camera. In 2002, Tom pulled double duty, like he had for many years prior, for the makeup department as well as acting in Bundy. He even made a cameo in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, playing The County Sheriff.
Tom has showcased his talents in a number of films, both within the horror genre as well as the action genre. Planet Terror (2007), It's My Party and I'll Die If I Want To (2007) and Lost Boys: The Tribe (2008) just to name a few. He even took a step into the Romantic-Comedy section with an appearance in Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008).
Although focusing more on his acting career in recent years, Savini has continued to be active with special makeup effects and in 2011 supervised the effects for the Australian film Redd Inc (a.k.a Inhuman Resources), which he would also star in. Inhuman Resources is a fun, entertaining film that provided solid performances from both the cast as well as the effects department.
2012 was a busy year for Savini. Returning to special effects, Death from Above got the Savini touch, while audiences were treated to him staring in the film. He even made an appearance in Django Unchained, which saw him reunited with Quentin Tarantino. He even gave the Romance genre another crack, appearing in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
With 2016 coming to a rapid close, Savini's work isn't done. He's returned to the Titty Twister bar in the TV series From Dusk Till Dawn, though sadly, not resurrecting Sex Machine. If that's not impressive enough, Tom is also heading the visual effects for Friday the 13th: The Game, in which he's created a whole new look for Jason Voorhees as well as a number of gruesome kills inspired by the entire franchise and, no doubt, some brand new ones to entice the fans more.
Ever looked a Savini film and thought "Yeah, I could do that"? Turns out you can. Tom runs the Tom Savini's Special Make-Up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Pennsylvania. Savini is happy to say that he refers offers he receives for movie make-up effects projects to his students and graduates of his school as well, passing on the good fortune that has favored him.
If I were to write about every film he's been a part of, this article would never have an end. He is a true inspiration, a pioneer even, when it comes to creating gore. There's only one way to slice and throat, and that's the Savini way.
Tom Savini's work is as iconic as the films it appears in. But it's not just his special effects and makeup that make him a Horror Icon. His willingness to return to the horror genre in an acting form also gives him this worthy title. Mr. Savini, I bow down to you. I'd be your willing victim any day.
Rhiannon's Top 5 Tom Savini Special Effects Movies
1: The Prowler (1981) - Cheesy by today's standards, this film showcased Savini's work in a true, horrific manner. The storyline isn't too bad either! A definite must see!
2: The Burning (1981) - Another film from the early 80's that could be considered cheesy, Savini created a menacing foe in Cropsy - his look was fearsome for the time. Highly recommended.
3: Friday the 13th (1980) - Kevin Bacon's death? Jason Voorhees' look? The hatchet to the head of Marci? You better believe that Savini was behind all of those! Enough said.
4: Maniac (1980) - A psychopath, troubled by his childhood abuse, loose in New York City, kills young women and takes their scalps as his trophies? Yeah, plenty of reasons for Savini to get his hands dirty.
5: Friday the 13th: The Game (2017) - OK, I'm cheating a little with this one, but knowing that Savini returns to Camp Crystal Lake for the first time since 1984, gives this Scream Queen chills. Knowing that he's responsible for coming up with the ideas for the kills, plus giving Jason a whole new look just adds to the excitement.