The Tom Savini episode of the WTF Happened to This Horror Celebrity? video series (formerly known as Where in the Horror Are They Now) was Written and Narrated by Jessica Dwyer and Edited by Juan Jimenez. It was Produced by John Fallon and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.
Gore. The gore the merrier or so it seemed during the 70s and 80s. And throughout many a decade gorehounds love all the red splatter a screen can handle. And one of the best to give the gore all the more is Tom Savini. A master of splatter, an icon of special effects, and a director and actor too, Savini has been the inspiration for more filmmakers and effects artists than I can count and continues to do so. He’s also never stopped making monsters and mayhem either. Tom Savini is one of modern horrors legends and I think it’s time we took a look at what made this master of the macabre and moustache into the icon he is today. So get ready because it’s gonna get a bit bloody as we find out what the BEEP happened to Tom Savini.
Tom Savini was born in Pittsburgh PA on November 3rd, 1946, the same year as Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera and She-Wolf of London would be released in theaters. Savini grew up finding a quick love of Hollywood magic thanks to movies and in particular the story of monster legend Lon Chaney Sr and the film about Chaney’s life Man of a Thousand Faces. Like many of today’s young and dream filled special effects artists, Tom started doing his own make ups on himself, family and friends at a very young age.
During his adolescents and continuing through college, Savini kept his love of make up alive and would eventually he’d also want to act in school productions. It was during his time in college that Savini would, as many other young men at the time, head to Vietnam. His time in Vietnam would show Savini the very real horror of war. Savini was a combat photographer who would record on film the slaughter and death of the battlefield. This would follow him into the creations he would later make for film audiences and why something Savini creates is typically far more unnerving and visceral than the usual horror movie fare.
Having been asked about how the experience in the war and seeing the actual carnage in person would affect his work, Savini has said, “I did see a lot of first-hand anatomically correct gore and I think the most important part of that was if we create a dead body or situation there’s a certain feeling you get from seeing the real thing. If I’m creating a gory effect and I don’t get the same feeling when I saw the real stuff, I’m not satisfied. 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.”
When Savini got back from the war he would go into Carnegie Mellon University where he’d focus on learning more about production, film, and acting. In 1974 Savini would work on his first big screen horror feature which would actually tackle the Vietnam war and the effects it would have on soldiers with the Bob Clark produced and directed Deathdream. Yes, the same Bob Clark who would do Black Christmas as well as A Christmas Story. The film’s focus is on a family who receives the news their son was killed in the war. Magically, the son named Andy, returns home apparently alive. It’s not long though that it’s obvious something isn’t right with Andy. Deathdream’s story of the young solider returned home but not quite alive is an unnerving film with a nightmare look into a family and small town warped by death and war. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Bob Clark had a truly twisted way with movies. You can also find it under the title Dead of Night.
It would be the connection to Pittsburgh though that would lead Savini to one of the most important partnerships of his career. 1978 would begin Savini’s career and pairing with George Romero on the creepy and haunting Martin. The vampire film would combine black and white footage for flashbacks and a current day setting which would find Romero’s soon-to-be wife Christine playing opposite Savini as her boyfriend, with John Amplas playing the title vampire. Romero himself would appear on screen as a priest. Savini would create a wrist cutting effect for the film.
That same year Romero and Savini would team up again for another horror classic, Dawn of the Dead. This time Savini would portray a biker name Blades on screen who comes to a bad end (well maybe not an end as we’ll see in a while) as well as doing a number of gory effects for the zombies and their victims. Dawn of the Dead is still considered one of the best zombie films ever made and it is in no small part to the gruesome realism of the special effects and the smart commentary that the movie brings to the screen, all under the sticky red gore splashing over everything. His work on the film would be nominated for a Saturn award for best make-up effects.
1980 would see Savini firmly cement himself in the annals of horrors goriest stories with two entries into the genre. The first Savini would actually have a (rather short but effective) role in. William Lustig’s cult and grindhouse classic Maniac was, as the title promises, insane and so was the production which managed to film the movie without permission on the streets of New York. The film is notorious for its extremes of violence and gore, thanks to Savini. Maniac follows the tormented and tormenting Frank Zito as played by Joe Spinell who was also responsible for the story. Frank was abused horribly by his mother growing up as she worked her job as a prostitute. Due to this Frank has become the Maniac of the title, murdering women and keeping their scalps on the various mannequins that litter his apartment.
The reason Savini’s actually in front of the camera for this one was he already had a mold of his head already made…so it was cheaper to just blow up his own head instead. The scene, which to this day is still wowza actually was filmed with live ammo. Savini’s fake head as Disco Boy was filled with left over food stuff and fake blood and that’s just as narly as you can imagine. Also the live ammo thing was just as risky as you can imagine, and the crew high tailed it out of the location as soon as the scene was done.
Maniac was a nasty, down and dirty film which has since become a classic in the hearts and minds of horror fans around the world. This would include Elijah Wood who would star in the remake of Maniac in 2012 and which would also be produced by William Lustig. You should check out both of these if you haven’t already.
In May of that same year a legend was born thanks to Savini and Sean Cunningham with the release of Friday the 13th. The story of Camp Blood and the various and sundry murders of the counselors there kept Savini busy creating horror upon horror. The iconic ending of the film and Jason appearing out of the lake after what should have been a happy ending was actually Savini’s idea. He was inspired by Carrie’s surprise hand grab from the grave and thought having Jason actually appear would be a great finale. The film would be shot on a budget of 550 thousand dollars. It would wind up making nearly 60 million. That… is a lot of profit.
It would be no surprise that the studio would want a sequel to it, but Savini declined to work on the second Friday because in his mind Mrs. Voorhees was dead and Jason wasn’t actually around, let alone how he could now be grown and walking about. Instead he’d go to work on another summer camp slasher called The Burning. Savini would create more horrific murder scenes as well as the creepy burned killer (No not that one, Cropsy would predate Freddy Krueger by a few years.) Savini based Cropsy off of real burn victims and his own personal memories of a homeless man he’d seen growing up. The film was a hit when it was released but has since gone on to be considered a favorite of fans.
1981 would see Savini’s work in another slasher film that has over the years become more appreciated and beloved by horror fans. Sadly when it was released The Prowler didn’t even break even. But Savini states his work in this film is some of his best and a favorite. In the roulette wheel of chosen weapon by an 80s slasher, The Prowler seems to have chosen the pitchfork. The film starts in 1945 and then moves to 1980 at a celebration for college students and others who fall prey to the aforementioned Prowler.
That same year Savini would appear on screen as The Black Knight Morgan in George Romero’s Knightriders. The film is an interesting retelling of the King Arthur legend, with modern knights jousting on motorcycles. The poster is as epic as you can imagine, with Ed Harris on a bad ass bike in armor and holding a mace and a shield. Honestly I can see where this movie probably more than a little inspired Sons of Anarchy (especially the ending.) The rest of the cast includes a number of Romero’s regulars. Ken Foree, John Amplas, and Christine Forrest to name a few.
In 1982 Savini and Romero would join forces again for one of the greatest anthology horror films ever made, Creepshow. The movie would be a massive love letter to all things EC Comics and would showcase Savini’s fantastic special effects alongside an all-star cast including Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ted Danson. And it was all written by the King of horror himself, Stephen King. How could this not be amazing? Savini would appear onscreen as one of the garbage men who discovers the missing order form for a Voodoo doll that the unfortunate Tom Atkins becomes a victim of at the end.
Tom Savini would work on more projects over the early 80s including Alone in the Dark and a return to Friday the 13th for The Final Chapter just to kill off Jason (the joke was on Tom here obviously.)
In 1984 Savini would do double duty in the first of three episodes of Tales From The Darkside, one of the best anthology horror series of all time, directing Inside the Closet. The episode would feature Lizzie, one of the sources of my nightmares growing up. Lizzie was… a child we can guess… a child what I have no idea, but her father loved her. Savini created Lizzie and as said, would go on to direct two more episodes of the classic series over its run. But Inside the Closet will forever be a standout for me and fans of the show.
1985 would be a big year for Savini when it came to the undead. He’d appear in the low budget horror film The Ripper as demonic Jack the Ripper (I actually saw this when I was 10 years old and remember freaking out my family who thought this was appropriate for a 10-year-old girl when I said, “Oh he’s pretty.” I still stick to my observation. Tom Savini was quite pretty as Jack the Ripper, and I can almost guarantee Bryan Fuller would agree with me.)
The same year Savini would bring The Ripper to life he’d also be busy bringing a lot of the dead back to a sort of life in Romero’s third entry of the Dead films, Day of the Dead. Day would showcase every bit of Savini’s prowess with Bub the nearly human zombie, various stages of decomposition, gore, and the infamous tearing apart of Rhodes (which entailed actual entrails that had gone bad over the weekend in a broken fridge.) Oh and don’t forget Doctor Tongue. Day of the Dead had a literal army of the dead to create and so Savini had a great team to help him, and that team would include a couple of names horror fans would become VERY familiar with, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. Nicotero would actually be on screen as one of the doomed soldiers, Private Johnson. George Romero would actually be one of the zombies in the film wearing a scarf… most likely indicating this is the what happened to his on-screen persona from Dawn of the Dead who was also wearing a very prominent scarf. The film would win the Saturn Award for best make up effects that year.
Eventually Savini’s work in special effects would lead him to become a friend and colleague of Dick Smith, one of the legends of SFX and who, like Savini, would create monster make up guidebooks for beginners and students of the art to learn with.
In 1986 Savini would bring Leatherface back to life with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, following up that sequel by working on the sequel to Creepshow which he would also star as The Creep. He’d also co-star as a teacher opposite Bobcat Goldthwaite in the awesome music video “Be Chrool to Your Scuel” by Twisted Sister, with Savini turning into Alice Cooper and Bobcat becoming Dee Snider. Savini would provide the zombie effects as well.
In 1988 Savini would rejoin George Romero for Monkey Shines, creating a number of monkey puppets and animatronics.
During the decade Savini would also appear three times Late Night with David Letterman, each one of them more hilarious than the last.
In 1990 Savini would again work with Romero as well as Italian horror master Dari Argento for the double the scare Two Evil Eyes, based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Savini does appear on screen as well for this one, looking quite Poeish as the murderer who took the teeth of his victim in a weird act of love.
That same year Savini would step behind the camera as a director for the remake of Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead. The film would star Tony Todd and Pat Tallman (who co-starred in Knightriders with Savini.) The film meant a lot to Savini who hadn’t been around to work on the original and had been asked by Romero personally to not only do the EFX this go round but to direct. Sadly, the production wasn’t an easy one with a lot of interference from producers and issues with keeping the film to an R Rating. While the film wasn’t welcomed when first released it has since become loved by fans due to the work of Savini and some prints which have made the rounds (thanks to Savini screening them) which show more of what he had envisioned for the project.
Savini would work on multiple projects through the 90s including direct to video films like HP Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and cult classics like Killing Zoe. In 1996 Savini would create a legend of his own with his role in Robert Rodriguez’s vampire classic From Dusk Till Dawn. Sex Machine was as notorious as his cod piece. His intro scene also included Greg Nicotero as the low life he whips the beer from.
In 2000 Savini started what is perhaps one of the just freaking cool college courses in history with the Tom Savini Special Make Up Effects Program, part of the Douglas Education Center in Pennsylvania. Savini himself designed the curriculum and has had graduates go on to careers at Universal Studios, KNB Effects, and more. The program is still very successful and continues to produce amazing talents.
Savini would continue working through the 2000s in both effects and acting, appearing in Romero’s 2005 release Land of the Dead as his now zombiefied biker Blades (told you he’d show up again.) Continuing his work with Robert Rodriguez, Savini would appear as the very unlucky Deputy Tolo in Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s segment of Grindhouse. He’d also appear in Rodriguez’s over the top action flick Machete as the fantastically named Osiris Amanpour who would also show up again in Machete Kills. In 2016 he’d return to the From Dusk Till Dawn universe in Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.
In 2017 Savini would enter a new arena with the Friday the 13th video game, designing a special Savini Jason skin. The exclusive skin was designed to represent the way Jason would have appeared if he had escaped hell after the events of The Final Friday, devil’s pitchfork and all.
2019 would see Tom Savini return to the Creepshow world as well as the director’s chair with the Creepshow anthology series episode By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain. That same year he’d bring horror to a whole new level in the WWE as he created the amazingly creepy and effective mask for Bray Wyatt’s The Fiend along with his effects team, even going so far as to design a rather disturbing Championship Belt featuring the creepy character.
In the following year Savini would appear in two more series, NOS4A2 the series based off the Joe Hill novel as Old Snake. Old Snake is a creepy looking dude with fangs, red eyes, and scale-like skin. He’d also appear as the Locksmith in Locke & Key, a series where a group of the teen characters is actually known as The Savini Squad.
In 2022 Savini would return to the video game world for Evil Dead: The Game and the awesome Savini Ash skin. The story behind this exclusive (which looks very gothic, and Crow inspired) was that this Ash landed in an alternate timeline where the evil within the Necronomicon began. It corrupted Ash’s mind as well as his body, hence the very dark look for the character. Speaking of dark, it would be that same year that Savini’s handywork would arrive back on the big screen in a big way with one of the years best horror films, The Black Phone. As previously with NOS4A2, this project would be from the mind of Joe Hill. Savini would be designing the iconic masks of the films bad guy The Grabber and his work is as horrifyingly beautiful as ever.
Tom Savini has never stopped working and he’s never stopped appreciating and being there for his fans. He’s appeared at numerous horror conventions over the years and always brings some amazing props with him… usually Fluffy which is a favorite. Just don’t get too close.
Tom Savini is one of the modern masters of make up and the macabre. While his work does include a lot of gore it’s a disservice to him to just say that’s what he does. Savini is an artist and a master who followed his dreams and the nightmares of his youth after seeing what could be thanks to guys like Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce. He’s a sculptor, a painter, and more than a little bit of a magician. He’s brought to life monsters, nightmares, and dreams. He’s created the real and the unreal in equal measure, and all of it with a skill second to none. And he, just like his idol Dick Smith, shared the secrets and took the time to teach kids who wanted to know how to do it too.
In 2015 a fantastic documentary was released under the very appropriate title Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini and I strongly suggest it if you want to know even more of the man, the myth, and the legend.
At the age of 76 Tom Savini is still going strong, going to conventions, and still working at the dream factory of Hollyweird. And more power to him.
Thanks for the nightmares, Tom. Keep them coming.
A couple previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Celebrity? can be viewed below. To see more, click over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/tom-savini-wtf/