Talking guts and glory with Tom Savini

Image by Joel Ashton McCarthy.
Image by Joel Ashton McCarthy.

A one-on-one with the horror legend

By Angela Espinoza, Arts Editor

I watched a lot of horror movies as a little girl. With shows like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? on TV, you could say they gave me a taste for blood. As a result, I became familiar with the name of Tom Savini, one of the greatest living visual effects artists. Savini still does effects today, but from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, you’d see his name pop up almost anywhere involving a terrifyingly-realistic effect, from Dawn of the Dead, to Creepshow, to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2—a craft which was parodied in the 2001 episode of The Simpsons called “Worst Episode Ever,” in which Savini guest starred as himself. Call it skill, call it a gift, or call it magic, Savini made nightmares come true—and I loved him for it. So imagine my honour when I got to speak with him during this year’s Fan Expo Vancouver exhibition, where I learned a lot about what he has going on today.

Again, Savini still occasionally does effects for films today, but lately he’s found a new passion in teaching, running the Special Makeup Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Pennsylvania, Savini’s home state. Savini had one person to name for his inspiration in starting the program, where he passes on much of his professional work to the students.

“When I was growing up and trying to learn makeup, nobody shared their secrets, except Dick Smith,” Savini starts. “Dick Smith is the greatest living makeup artist on the planet, and if you called him and asked him a question, he would spend hours telling you how he did something.

“I really loved the way he made people feel by sharing his secrets, and also that’s how I learned, and everybody working as a makeup artist today; Dick Smith invented everything we do. So I just enjoyed that idea, and the first thing I did was publish my [first] two books [Grande Illusions I and II), which were giving away a lot of secrets—of course the school gives away everything,” Savini laughs.

With the program in mind, I inquired as to what Savini thought of how special effects and makeup are used today. In our CGI-dominated world, I cited the Evil Dead remake as an example of effects used today.

“I didn’t see it,” Savini states honestly, “but they are making a big deal out of the practical effects [in Evil Dead]. I think their timing is perfect on that because, what little I know or see of the Internet, there seems to be a war going on between visual effects artists and practical effects artists—and, predictably, [film’s] going back to the practical effects because there’s so much CGI going on that they’re sending [practical effects work] overseas… so that’s what all the local visual effects artists are up in arms about.

“And there also seems to be this collective dislike of CGI. I love it when it’s done well, but they haven’t mastered certain things, you know. Even kids today can tell the difference; if it’s totally impossible, it’s CGI. The best makeup effects today I think are the combination of practical effects and CGI. I wish we had CGI when I was trying to solve problems. Like I said, I love it when it’s done well.”

In regards to certain problems, Savini stated that he never experienced too much difficulty in all his years of effects work—except with 1982’s Creepshow, it’s screenplay by one Stephen King.

“Nothing worked,” Savini states bluntly. “I had eyeballs that were green, we couldn’t get them in… I had a tongue that grew plants, [but we] couldn’t get that [to work]—and I wanted to impress this guy, it was Stephen King!

“That’s the only movie in my whole career where there was any problem. Everything else just fell into place and to me it was easy. I never found anything too difficult, the chore was always the same, ‘What do I need to show people to make them believe that what they’re seeing is really happening?’”

Finally, after an extremely fulfilling and gratifying interview, I had to ask him one last, very different question: what the hell was he doing in last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Now, Savini also acts, and has been in many films as an actor, but Perks is a long way off from films like From Dusk Till Dawn or Grindhouse.

“The director, Stephen Chbosky was a big fan of mine growing up. He’s from Pittsburgh, and when he came to do casting, he sought me out. I think I was precast as the high school shop teacher.”

As simple as the answer reads, I can attest that Savini answered that last question, and all of my questions happily—as if I wasn’t grateful enough to just meet the guy.

You can catch Savini in another set of acting roles this year in the horror/action films Machete Kills (sequel to 2010’s Machete) and in The Fourth Reich, which stars Sean Bean and features Nazi zombies.