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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In film historian Leonard Quarts article, “The Deer Hunter: The Superman in Vietnam,” the author discusses an interesting notion how the film (Deer Hunter, 1978) in itself created an American mythological figure, the soldier, living beyond conventional values and projecting heroic, almost alluring, emotional invulnerability. According to Quart, Hollywood has used this mythology to blur the argument of our involvement with Vietnam War away from the political world, away from any specific policy, and back into an introspective question regarding the human condition in Vietnam. Using The Deer Hunter as a backdrop, Quart reconstructs the main character, Michael Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), and illuminates his superman archetype as the American mythological figure for the human condition. This reconstruction can be seen in three character developments: first, Michael, as local steel-mill worker, second, seeing Vronsky as an accomplished hunter and woodmen, which directly leads into the third character development, Vronsky’s leadership ability during his stint as a Vietnam POW. These three reconstructions demonstrate two years after the Vietnam War ended (1978), how the overwhelming sense of self-confidence and invulnerability drew many American fighting men into Vietnam during the 1960’s.
The myth of the superman in Vietnam is first constructed in the persona of Michael Vronsky, as the Pennsylvanian, blue collar, working class hero. During the film, even the small factory town to which the main characters belong was glozed over with a refined middle-class shine. Men, working without complaint, nor distressed, nor sweat from countless hours of back-breaking work; even their steel-mill uniforms are absent of blemish. This image of the working class town fits perfectly as Michael Vronsky’s fortress of solitude; a town that emulates intrinsic values of church and country, indicative to middle class America. The picture perfect sleepy little industrialized town, far removed from the hustle of modern cities, gives the audience a sense of romanticism, the American Dream in its natural environment.
The second construction mentioned, was how Quart uses the development of Vronsky as the American superman through his prowess as a hunter. Vronsky can be pictured as “an outsider…[,albeit] chaste, honorable, forbearing, revering the mountains and nature, and given to a purity of purpose embodied in his deer-hunting gospel of the one-shot-kill. ” Michael as an actual hunter, an ultimate outdoors man, he becomes the myth of a romanticized figure of American folklore and tradition who constructs his identity in conflict with nature, similar to historically famous Americana outdoorsmen, such as: Davey Crockett or Teddy Roosevelt.
The third construction Quart uses in the development of Vronsky as the American superman myth, is during his performance at the Russian-roulette table in the Vietnam POW camp. Here, Quart complements Vronsky’s characterization in notions of a Hemmingway-esk sense of heroic grace and indomitability. Vronsky’s capacity for violence is seen as calm and controlled and when he frees his fellow patriots, he becomes “the incarnation of the superman…the apotheosis of American courage and daring…a transcendent figure who seems almost immortal. ” However, this comparison also begs the question, regarding the state of the human precondition, if a person can kill without fear or constraint.
Quart’s article on The Deer Hunter as an allegory for the mythological superman in Vietnam is a convincing argument. The director obviously attempted to portray the middle-class American as both the hero and victim of the war in not only how Vronsky was developed, but also how his town changed as the people themselves changed. If film symbolizes our hopes and fears, The Deer Hunter represents our ideological need to create certainty where there is none. However, the horror of Vietnam is too ambiguous and complex to explain or dismiss away within the concept of the American superman; Vietnam is not the OK Corral or some other western motif where the Duke rides in on a white horse and justifies the atrocity of war and our involvement. The Deer Hunter is an awesome movie, a must see for any Vietnam War movie buff, but like Quart, the film lacked significant historical accountability, and, even more important, the film lacked social realism that would have allowed the movie to go beyond being just another cartoonish depiction of middle class America in the Vietnam War.