All the Gory Details
An Interview With Make-Up Master Tom Savini
A man jumps onto the hood of a car and fires both barrels of a shotgun through the windshield. In a welter of safety glass and buckshot, the driver's head disappears, leaving nothing but hair and pulpy red goo. A pasty greenish zombie takes a hungry bite from the shoulder of his wife, tearing at the muscle and tendons with his teeth as she shrieks. A leather codpiece flips up, and with a metallic snick, a revolver barrel pops out of a man's crotch. These images came from the fevered imagination of Tom Savini. In 30 years of make-up work, Savini's mastery of the form has put him in the same league with effects greats such as Dick Smith and Rick Baker. Longtime friend and associate of George Romero, Savini was responsible for the gruesome make-up effects in Romero's films, but also is notable for his work on features such as The Burning, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Killing Zoe, and the great Deranged. Savini has also appeared in front of the camera acting in a number of films, and he directed a remake of Romero's landmark Night of the Living Dead in 1990. He still resides in his beloved Pittsburgh with his fiancée, daughter, and cat. The outgoing, engaging Savini is scheduled to appear at the Alamo Drafthouse on March 25 for a showing of behind-the-scenes footage and rare Savini features. If all goes according to plan, Savini will appear with his bag of tricks in hand, and a lucky audience member will be butchered by the make-up artist (or blown completely to flinders).
Austin Chronicle: So, tell me a little about Pittsburgh in the Sixties.
Tom Savini: [chuckle] Well, I was in high school. I go to the libraries and print out copies of the entertainment section of the newspaper, because I love looking at ads for the 50-some drive-in theaters that existed then, and there are absolutely none now. There were huge movie theatre advertisements in the paper, none of those movie theatres are here now. There's not one movie theatre left in downtown Pittsburgh where we used to have palaces; to me it was an insult. I took it personally when a movie theatre closed down, because to me it was a house of magic. I grew up in those houses of magic. My neighborhood movie theatre here, the Plaza, opened in 1917. That's where it all started for me; I saw Man of a Thousand Faces there when I was 12, and that's when my life changed. That theatre closed just recently and has a big "For Sale" sign on it. My friends know how much I loved that theatre, and for my birthday they got me a big print of a photo from when the place opened in 1917, with a model-T in front of it. It's a thrill, seeing a picture of the place with a poster for a Douglas Fairbanks movie in front. But anyway, I went to college and enlisted in the service to stay out of Vietnam. When you enlisted then, you had your choice of schools, and I went for the photo school. Then, they promptly sent me right to Vietnam.
AC: You were a combat photographer, right?
TS: That's right.
AC: You and George Romero were friends way back when?
TS: Well, he came to my high school when I was a sophomore, trying to audition people for a movie he was working on, and I was one of two people he brought down to the studio for screen tests. The movie never got made, but a couple of years later he was gearing up to make Night of the Living Dead, and I went down to show him my portfolio, and he said, "Yeah, we can use you for this," but as things turned out, I was actually in Vietnam when production started on it. When I got out of the Army and was back in Pittsburgh, he was working on a movie called Martin, and I went down and auditioned for the part of the vampire, which was already cast, but I did all the make-up work, had a part, and did all the stunt work. My philosophy is, "The more you do, the more you get to do." My goal was that, as an actor, it was hard to get parts, but I used make-up effects to open the door for me. Eventually he got me to act, like in the movie Knightriders, where I didn't do the make-up effects but got to do the lead role with Ed Harris, and in From Dusk Till Dawn ... I got on a bit of a tangent there, didn't I? I've known George since, I guess, around 1962.
AC: And you got acquainted with Billy Cardille way back when, too?
TS: Yeah, he was a local horror show host. I took a chance one night when he was on the air live and drove up to the studio in monster make-up and wound up being on the air. For me it was a huge thrill, being in a TV studio and making it onto my favorite show. I eventually wound up doing the make-up on him.
AC: Billy Cardille was the reporter in Night of the Living Dead, wasn't he?
TS: Yeah, and in the version that I directed, too, I brought him in to do the same part.
AC: And then his daughter, Lori Cardille, is the lead in Day of the Dead, right?
AC: I've seen Document of the Dead, and it looks like you had your share of difficulties in filming Dawn of the Dead.
TS: Not really. I mean it was not really a breeze, but to me it was two months of Halloween every night. I mean, going to the shopping mall, making up zombies, playing a part, and that's another movie where I did all the stunts. To me, it was like a party!
AC: Is that mall still there?
TS: Oh yeah, the Monroeville Mall. People go there, sometimes fans will go there and call me at home and say, "We're at the Monroeville Mall, walking around listening to the soundtrack of Dawn of the Dead."
AC: Whose idea was the crotch-gun in From Dusk Till Dawn?
TS: It was the director's, Robert Rodriguez's idea. In fact, he had the idea for Desperado -- Salma Hayek was gonna use it, but Rodriguez said they couldn't get it to work right. Fortunately for me, they did get it to work for Dusk Till Dawn, and I got to wear it!
AC: That had to have been a pretty fun role.
TS: It was a dream come true! You know how you have dreams that you won the lottery or found buried treasure, and you're pissed off when you wake up and it's not true? For Dusk Till Dawn, I was afraid I'd wake up and not really be there. That's how much fun it was.
AC: That's a movie that really cries out for a drive-in to screen it at.
TS: They made it with that intention. I mean, look at the cast: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Tarantino. I mean, they set out to make a B-movie!
AC: What have you seen lately that you really liked?
TS: Well, I thought the best movie of the summer was The Mummy. A lot of my friends didn't like it; they were expecting a hard-core horror movie, but I thought it was like a cartoon with live actors and a lot of CGI. I loved that movie, I went and saw it three times. I really liked The Sixth Sense, too. If you're talking about movies that scare me, Alien, The Exorcist -- those two were probably some of the only ones that got a scare out of me. Normally when I see a movie, I'm thinking about so much other stuff -- camera angles and editing and whatnot -- that I have to see a movie seven or eight times. That's part of the difficulty in being involved in the magic of movies, and to me they are magic. I mean, when I was kid, Frankenstein really existed, and I believed he was really there. Creature From the Black Lagoon -- I mean, I saw Creature in 1954 when it opened and I was eight years old, so that magic is what gets you into the movies, but the irony is, you destroy that magic for yourself forever by being involved in it. I wish that I could see movies through the eyes of an eight-year-old again. I used to say that I wished I could see a movie through my daughter's eyes, but now even she's tainted. She made me take her to see Coppola's Dracula four or five times. I'm sure there were people in the audience wondering why this little girl was there, but if they were sitting next to her, they'd hear her saying stuff like, 'Is that a blue screen, Dad? Is that yak hair, or human hair? Is that foam latex or gelatin?' I mean, I don't even want to see it through her eyes, because she's not so innocent anymore herself about the magic of movies.
AC: Does it bother you to see the way that computers have been doing the heavy lifting in movies, the way it takes away the artistry of, say, Ray Harryhausen or George Pal miniature work?
TS: Sometimes. When it's done really well, it's a joy to watch. When I saw Jurassic Park the first time, I had a lot of trouble. I didn't see dinosaurs. They were there, on the screen, but I just saw a guy at a computer. I made a point of seeing it again, but this time I had to change my mindset. I told myself that whatever I saw in the frame, trees in the foreground, people, dinosaurs, it's really there. Then it was really awesome, but that's what CGI is training audiences to do, to pretend it's really there. You're right, there's something to be said for something that is really there. It requires less effort on your part, and you believe it more. When it's done badly, like American Werewolf in Paris --
AC: Or Anaconda!
TS: -- it's really bad. You can't connect. When it's done really well, it's a joy, like The Mummy. But even so, I have to take my words back somewhat, because again I had to change my mindset some to believe it's really there. I haven't seen Deep Blue Sea yet, but the CGI shark moved way too fast. Harryhausen couldn't have done that. Something about the jerky movements, like the big iron guy in Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, the Harryhausen technique was perfect for that. I don't know, CGI has personally saved me a lot of work. When I did Mr. Stitch in France, they had me working on a floating eyeball, with a pupil that dilated and all that, and I was wondering, "How the hell am I gonna do that?" until they came to me and said, "Forget about the eyeball, we're gonna CGI that." So all I had to do was do a blue screen with a slit in it, attach a garbage bag behind the slit with all kinds of food and garbage and crap and an explosive charge in it. The thing is supposed to get smacked with a plate and it cuts it and all this biomechanical crap and sparks and such fly out of it, so I just blew it up with the charge. It made my job and my life a lot easier. I don't think that make-up-and-effects guys will ever be standing on a corner with a sign saying, "Will Do Effects for Food," though. CGI is still very expensive, and they'll always need make-up guys to do the prototype, at least. In Jurassic Park, they still had Phil Tippett, an animator, guide and direct the movements of the digital dinosaurs. In fact, they had to tell him, "We're sorry, we won't be using an animator for the dinosaurs," and he thought he was out of a job, when in fact he oversaw the job and supervised the computer guys with the dinosaurs.
AC: Maniac is a movie that people have really reviled over the years ...
TS: Well, you know, Lenny Bruce was outlawed, and now his stuff is pretty tame. The whole time we were shooting it, I was wondering how you could show people this stuff, when in fact they showed absolutely everything that we did. The scalping scene was shot in the St. James Hotel in New York City, and a week later somebody was really decapitated in the hotel! Not because of the movie or anything, but it was a weird coincidence. The Maniac is a sleazy character; creeps like that really exist out there, unlike Freddy or Jason or Michael Myers, a character that's obviously over the top, but the Maniac character is really sleazy and believable, and that's what bothered me about it. People have misinterpreted what I've said about that before, and there's been a rumor for a long time that I didn't like the people in the movie, but I loved the people. It was a great job for me. All I said was that the subject matter was trash, and [director] Bill Lustig would tell you the same thing.
AC: How'd you pull off the shotgun gag in the movie?
TS: I used a real shotgun, and that was me firing it through the windshield at a fake head of myself. That wasn't in the script, and a lot of stuff you see in movies that I did the effects on wasn't. In Dawn of the Dead, we'd sit around and think of ways to kill people. I'd suggest to George, "How about if we drive a screwdriver through this zombie's ear?" And he'd go, "Okay." In Maniac, I had a mask of myself that I'd made, a hollow latex mask, and we filled it with a plaster lining to give it some rigidity, filled it with food from the caterer's table, put me in the movie, and blew my own head off. It was me on the hood of the car, blowing my own head to bits. We did it in New York under the Verrazanno Bridge, and of course it's illegal to fire a gun in New York, so we did the gag, and in three or four minutes we were gone. There was nobody there. I tossed the shotgun to an off-duty policeman. He got in the car and drove away, and we all just left.
AC: Guerrilla filmmaking! That's one of the most devastating scenes in the whole movie.
TS: We had cameras set up all over the place for that. I had to take at least a minute to check it out and see what I'd done to myself. Blowing my own head off was a trip.
AC: In Two Evil Eyes, you worked with Dario Argento as well as with George, right?
TS: Oh yeah. Dario's like an Italian Edgar Allan Poe ... but I don't think that Two Evil Eyes, or really any of the films he's done here in the States, are as good as the stuff he's done overseas. Opera was priceless. He's just a visual magician, and I don't think he pulled it off in Two Evil Eyes. I did Trauma with him in Minneapolis, and it was a weird movie. Again, it wasn't what you'd expect from Dario. We got along really well, though, and communicated so easily. It's amazing since he doesn't speak the language. When I was a kid, I only spoke Italian, and I had to take English language lessons. Dario gave me a great compliment one day. We were sitting around brainstorming about effects and he said, "Savini, you're a volcano of the mind" -- and that's exactly what I think of him!
AC: So what's coming up for you?
TS: Lots of promises, no contracts. I was in Toronto doing this movie called Slice, for Mark Pavia, the guy who did Nightflyer, hired a crew, built all the sets, did the effects, and the first two checks cleared, but then suddenly somebody sued somebody, the banks descended on the rest of our money, and we got shut down. That was the first time that ever happened, shut down before we ever started shooting. I really want to do Vampirates; you can find a link to that movie on my Web site [http://www.savini.com]. I'm supposed to work on a movie called Mr. Ninja, there's a movie in Orlando coming up called Shattered, in which I'm supposed to play a martial-artist-type killer. There's Chupacabra, something from Screen Gems, Frank Capra Jr.'s studio in Wilmington. They're still working on the script and raising the money for that. I'd love to do that. I sent a treatment to George Clooney and Miramax and Artisan about a project I wrote; I did Miramax's first film, The Burning.
You gotta keep a lot of irons in the fire, and you gotta see which one gets the hottest -- hot like they send you a check and you actually start working on it.
Tom Savini will appear Saturday, March 25, 9:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado. Tickets are $20 and available in advance by calling 476-1320. For audiences 18 and up; passes not valid. http://www.drafthouse.com