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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