The Sultan of Splatter
If the title of this post doesn’t give away what we’ll be talking about, well…shit. We’ve got some work ahead of us. As any fan of horror, the one thing that we deranged nerds tend to appreciate, even more than the actors themselves, are the special effects guys (and gals). To be frank, why do we watch horror? To be entertained, fundamentally, correct? We’re not here to find enlightenment, though if it happens then all the better. No, much like the poor bloodthirsty souls crammed into Rome’s gladiatorial colosseum, we cry out for escape from the realities of our plight. And what brings the greatest escape, the tastiest of entertainment? Gore. And all the horrible ways characters get done in by the monster, the serial killer, the freak in the castle, the alien invaders, the thing hiding the ice, whatever, we expect gore and lots of it and not just quantity but quality as well. For horror fans, special effects take front row. We critique effects just as harshly as we look at the screenwriters and even more so maybe than the directors. Who hasn’t sat through a terribly written and directed horror movie walking away loving it simply because it had awesome effects? It’s often the first thing we look at.
And with every decade, every generation, there are particular styles of special effects. In the 1940s and leading through the early 60s, it was what wasn’t seen that was supposed to scare you, and blood came from a bottle of Hersheys Chocolate. But starting in the late 1960s, following the advancement of technicolor, under the direction of guys like Alfred Hitchcock and Herschell Gordon Lewis, filmmakers began pushing those on-screen limitations and inventing new ways to entertain with effects. Dick Smith is rightfully the real pioneer of realism in special effects. His crowning achievement, realistic gore in movies such as The Exorcist, The Godfather, Scanners, and more. And Dick did more than pioneer the industry, he set the table for the rise of a new generation who would bring us even better work to the history cinematography.
Tom Savini was inspired, not by Dick Smith or Herschell or even Frankenstein’s maker Jack Pierce, though no doubt they each impacted him in some way. No. Tom credits his inspiration to legendary early silent film star, Lon Chaney Sr, aka, the Man of a Thousand Faces. Chaney had a reputation in Hollywood for coming up and developing his own props and makeup, most of it often extremely uncomfortable, for the characters he played on screen, some of the most notable ones being The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Norte Dame, and London After Midnight. In 1957, Universal released the biopic of Lon Chaney Sr., and young Tom fell in love and began experimenting with special effects makeup, first on himself and later his friends. Eventually, Tom attended Point Park University and later Carnegie-Mellon University (following his tour of duty in Vietnam). After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Tom served as a combat photographer in the Vietnam War. It is during this service Tom most credits his development of special effects, taking the harsh realities of war and applying it to his later work.
The true birth of practical effects, or the surge of gore, really started in the 1970s, in such movies as Dawn of the Dead, I Drink Your Blood, and The Incredible Melting Man, among others. And it was during this era Tom Savini started his career which would eventually award him such titles as The Sultan of Splatter and The Godfather of Gore (though to be fair, I think this title ought to go to Dick Smith, don’t you think?). In 1974, Savini worked on Bob Clark’s masterpiece (but oddly forgotten) Deathdream, the story of a Vietnam soldier who comes home after being killed in action. I’ve often wondered what Tom thought about this flick, having served in Vietnam himself. Deathdream doesn’t present itself as being either pro or anti war, though we can certainly guess. What it does present is an overwhelming sense of questioning of our individual involvement in the affairs of the nation, beautifully told from the simplicity of a small town family unit. I’ll stop myself there. I can go on for a tangent with Deathdream, in fact, I’ve got a review of the movie…if you’re interested, you can read it here.
Next, Tom worked again with Bob Clark in the movie Deranged. Later, he worked with fellow Pitsburg allium, George A. Romero, in the underappreciated fright flick, Martin. Let’s slow down here before moving on with Tom’s other work. Whenever I think of George A. Romero I first think of…zombies, yes, it’s true, shocker, right? But I also tend to think of Tom Savini after thinking about zombies. While Tom was in Vietnam, Romero was making Night of the Living Dead, but thanks to their relationship developed in Martin, they were able to collaborate in Romero’s second of his Dead Trilogy, Dawn of the Dead in 1978. If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan. Dawn of the Dead is without a doubt one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Not only was the screenwriting, the direction, the acting totally above par, but the practical effects also shined. Even today, though the blood is certainly not realistic, it is still effective. When the zombie-fro dude takes a chunk out of that lady’s shoulder, it still gives me the creeps. That’s a 38-year shelf-life, and it’s still aging, still perfecting like a fine wine.
Dawn of the Dead also opened new doors for Savini. In a slew of films, he would eventually be invited by Sean S. Cunningham to work on a new project titled Friday the 13th. Clearly, I’m picking all of my favorite movies Tom was involved in, and why sudden I? I’m the one writing this dang article! That being said, I’m sure there are other horror nerds who tend to lean in other directions regarding the Sultan’s work. Some may prefer Maniac or Eyes of the Stranger or The Burning or The Prowler, all are fine films worth considering. But for me, one of his crowning achievements was Friday the 13th. It’s because of this movie I question why Savini hasn’t been given the nickname The Father of Jason Voorhees. It was Tom’s creation that would spawn into a long lasting and fruitful franchise. Loved by many; despised by some. And as any tragic greek tale, Tom would eventually be asked to destroy his creation in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
And his career continues. In 1985, Tom was given the Saturn Award for Best Make-Up Effects in Geroge A. Romero’s third “dead” installment, Day of the Dead (1985). And he moved on to contribute to too many movies and television shows to mention here, working as not only a special effects guru but also as a director and an actor/stuntman. Without a doubt, his love for horror movies is very evident. He even started his own school for special effects by opening Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Pennsylvania and authored several books, including but not limited to Grande Illusions I and II and Horror F/X. For fans of the late 70s and 80s horror, it’s difficult not knowing his work and the work of other legendary special effects artists. It’s what we wanted most, the gore. Today, though, I have to wonder, are the makeup artist and gore masters even thought of. If I asked your typical The Walking Dead fan who did the practical effects for the show, would they know? I seriously doubt it. The answer is Greg Nicotero, BTW, who also worked on The Evil Dead 2 and Day of the Dead, and who is also from Pitsburg, which makes me seriously question what exactly does Pitsburg put in their drinking water. Maybe this is something we should start doing. No, not the drinking water, the “other” people who make movies possible. Even I do not know all the names of the effects or prop masters and all the other behind the scenes people working tirelessly to bring us our horrific entertainment. This is especially worse for TV as the credits flash by to make time for more commercials. So, if you’re a fan of horror, if you indulge to be entertained by the grotesque, after the show, after the movie, look up the effects team, the writers, the props, the composers, and read their names. you may be surprised to find a lot of these people have been involved in a lot of work you happen to be a fan of.
Born November 3rd, 1946, today marks Tom Savini’s 70th birthday. And I wish him many more birthdays to come. Thank you, Tom, for your work and bringing not just me but countless others hours and hours of wonderfully sadistic entertainment. Cheers!
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Deathdream (1974): in review
There is something very intimate going on in Deathdream. Something very personal is being shown to us. Perhaps this feeling has to do with the film’s low quality, the early 70s B-movie vibe, and dang near grainy steady-cam picture, or maybe the intimacy in question has to do with the atmosphere, the utterly believable world we’re entering as the movie starts, as it is likewise chilling and raw, in which a part of you doesn’t want to exist, but it does. Just ask your parents or grandparents, or maybe you know something yourself of this era of fear. Mostly, the credit of the realism is thanks in part to the incredible cast of actors and actresses, all unknowns, taking on the role of characters that are mirror images of people walking the streets in small town America, a place that very well could exist, because it probably does, somewhere out there. And this is the vibe, the feeling we get as the reel begins to hum. This movie is real. This is real life. And when the supernatural takes hold, turning our blood to ice, we’re caught off guard. These things that transpire cannot happen. The dead stay dead, those are the rules. But for Andy Brooks, the protagonist (or is he the antagonist?) in this story, those rules no longer apply. Andy has come home. And I think this is the root of the intimacy. Andy, by all accounts of the rules of reality, should not have come home, because sometimes, given differing situations, we cannot come home. The life we lived or the life we’ve known can no longer exist because the other self, the past self no longer exists.
Okay…before we get anymore metaphysical, lets talk about the movie in question.
Here’s a synopsis in case you missed out on watching:
“A young man killed in Vietnam inexplicably returns home as a zombie.”
Jeez, you gotta love those IMDb descriptions!
In a nut shell, yes. This is the movie. But, for clarification, I don’t think Andy is a zombie. He’s something…else.
Lets take a look.
As the movie opens, we’re shown a quick clip of Andy’s supposed death in Vietnam and then movie pans to the second most important scene, into the kitchen of the Brooks family. Mother. Father. Sister. Everyone is merry, or as much as they can be with a loved one deployed to Vietnam. They make small talk. They laugh. Everything will be okay, this scene tells us, so long as they remain strong, for Andy’s sake. And then someone knocks on the door. Who is it? They don’t know. It’s awfully late for a neighbor to stop by. The mood drops temperature. Two uniformed soldiers are standing at the door. It’s a telegram, the worst kind, the one no one at home wants to receive. “I’m sorry to inform you,” the Class-A dressed solider announces, “but your son is dead. Killed in action.” Shock. Cold pricking goosebumps. “My son? Dead?” Its laughable, how could their son, brother, Andy be dead? These things don’t happen to them, they happen to other people, people on the news, people far away from the safety of the dinner table. No, not Andy. Not their Andy.
The grief here at the dinner table is very raw and heartfelt. The mother weeping. The sister in shock. The father…doesn’t want to accept the news. I’m not sure how you are taking this scene, for me, this moment in the movie is very real. After serving almost 7 years in the Army, and having deployed three times to Iraq, watching the Brooks family is how I might imagine my own family reacting to the news of my death. I believe this is what the director and screenwriter wanted. Hence the name, Deathdream. Yes. It’s a horror movie. A 70s horror movie at that. But it is more. It’s real. And director Bob Clark wanted you believe as much. He wanted you to become one of the Brooks family.
Now, what happens next is where things get a little odd. There’s a knock at the door. The family, just getting to bed after hearing the terrible news, tread the stairs thinking, “What now?” The father answers. There’s a buildup of suspense, as if something really horrifying is going to be at the door. It’s Andy. “It’s Andy!” they all shout. Everyone is overcome with joy. There must have been a mistake. “Can you believe, they actually told me my son was dead?” the father says. Everyone is happy, and rightly so, but there’s something…wrong with Andy. Something he’s not saying. He’s pale and stoic. He doesn’t want to be around crowds, not even friends or family. Again, they recall the evening’s event, nearly hysterical, “They sent a telegram telling us you were dead.” And Andy answers with, “I was.” And here we get a glimpse of the horror to come, the Brooks family doesn’t know how to react. Andy is different…
As stated before, the above is the second most important scene in the movie. The strange homecoming. As the film progresses, we’re given other little snippets of post-war life. Andy, though we’re not too sure (we weren’t privy to his life before the war), but we’re given the impression had been at some point a very happy go-lucky sort of chap. All the neighborhood is abuzz with the news of Andy’s return, even the local kids want to stop by and say hello. But Andy isn’t the Andy they remember. He doesn’t want to play. He doesn’t want to interact. And everyone is taken aback. They don’t know what to make of this new Andy, in fact, they don’t even want to see Andy as being different. The father gets mad, retires to the local bar, and gets drunk. The mother, keeps vigil, maybe Andy will get better, she promises herself. The sister hides amongst her friends. And the neighborhood kids? Well, they all run away screaming.
I won’t get into all the detail, you really ought to watch this film for yourself, but speaking personally, this scene, among others, also resonates with me. Am I the same Thomas Flowers that existed before the war? Not at all. I’m different, and through the years have come to learn how my experiences have changed me, and I’m still learning, every day. Andy doesn’t have that luxury. Andy isn’t your typical veteran. He’s a ghost. A memory of a shadow, made of stolen blood that somehow keeps him whole, walking amongst the living. His character isn’t going to learn anything or develop or change. There is only one progression for Andy, the ultimate progression you might say. And so, you might be asking, “What’s the point of the story?” Well, being careful not to take the movie out of context, this is a 1972 (74 maybe?) story. Being drafted into the Vietnam War is a huge fear in the minds of most American families, especially for those with sons, brothers, uncles, and husbands already deployed in combat. But, there is also an ambiguous question clawing its way out the grave. What is it, you ask? What is the question?
Let’s talk about another important scene, though certainly not the most important one. When Andy’s father seeks outside help to discover what is amiss with his son, Andy ends up following Dr. Allman, the gentleman who had been working with Andy’s father, trying to solve the proverbial mystery of what was “wrong with him.” Andy confronts the good Doc in his office, stating, before draining him of his blood, “I died for you, Doc. Why shouldn’t you return the favor…? You owe me…” And then, in a scene mimicking the escalation of drug abuse common among combat veterans, Andy “shoots up” the drained blood with a hypodermic needle. This scene, for obvious reasons, is full of dark ambiguous questions. But it’s not the most ambiguous scene. This scene simply lays on another series of questions.
Here we are. Finally. The most important scene. Before we move on, I need to mention the ending. I know, spoilers and all, but I need to talk about what happened. Throughout the movie, Andy is slowly decaying. He’s becoming what he already is, dead. After a few murders, the truck driver and Doc Allman, and I think perhaps one more (I can’t quite remember), the cops are now on to him. Delirious, Andy’s mother agrees to take Andy away, but during the chase, Andy directs her to the town cemetery. Cemetery? Why there? The sirens are wailing. Tires screeching. Guns drawn. Will there be a final showdown, man verses monster? No. We are denied such luxuries of simplicity. In the final moments of screen time, Andy, nearly dissolved of energy and flesh, crawls to a grave he had prepared for himself sometime previously. He lowers himself, clawing the dark rich earth, covering his body. His mother watches, in tears, protesting, “Why? Why?” And Andy, unable to speak, gestures to his impromptu tombstone. “Andy Brooks, born 1952. Died 1972.” Slowly she realizes that her son is in fact dead, and helps cover his body. The cops arrive on scene shortly before the final act, pistols in hand, ready to slay the creature. But the creature is already dead. They’ve been robbed this battle of archaic man, of Stone Age man, but their faces are not disappointed, their faces are full of question. And this is why the final scene is the most important scene in the movie. Why? Because it deals with a mother and her son. It deals with our children, the future generations and the things we’ll ask them to do. No. Deathdream doesn’t answer any of these questions. The answers to all these ambiguous questions are up to the viewer. As witnesses, we will have to answer for ourselves.
With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
“This is an intense book, and it definitely doesn’t pull any punches. This is Flowers’s first foray into extreme horror but I have to say that his lack of experience does not show in the least bit. He manages to bring an expert balance of extreme, and restraint. The challenging moments happen at the precise moments in the story where I thought they were called for. And there was no point where I felt he was being gratuitous. What gross and disturbing scenes were there felt like they were serving a purpose” -Confessions of a Reviewer.