Meet the master of macabre — Pittsburgh’s own Tom Savini
by Abby DiBenedetto | Photos courtesy Douglas Education Center
It’s a rainy day in early autumn, and special effects makeup guru Tom Savini and I are deep in conversation. The topic? Zombies. We’re both huge fans of AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead (Savini is proud of his protégée, Gregory Nicotero, the Emmy award winning makeup mastermind behind the show), and I’m sharing with Savini my recent zombie apocalypse experience — the Run For Your Lives Zombie 5K. “Are you saying the zombies actually ran after you?” he asks. “We don’t like running zombies. George [Romero, writer/director of zombie thrillers like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead] actually has a bumper sticker that says, ‘Fast Zombies Suck.’”
Savini goes on, explaining how he plans to one-up Nicotero’s killer zombies in an upcoming film. “When dead things are coming out of the grave, they will be less there — they look disintegrated,” says Savini. “To me, that’s the new wave of zombies that I hope to create.”
Hearing Savini talk about his goals for the future is inspiring. The passion in his voice proves there’s a reason why he’s had such a long and successful career. The Pittsburgh native has done acting, directing, and special effects for and with the best in the business (all-stars including Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney, and George Romero, to name a few!).
Savini’s climb to the top started at a young age. “When I was 10, I saw a movie called Man of a Thousand Faces. Before that movie, I thought that monsters were real — I was legitimately scared of these things,” says Savini. “Man of a Thousand Faces showed me that somebody creates them, so the magic that was lost after learning that the monsters weren’t real was replaced by the magic of creativity and the desire to be the guy that creates the monsters.”
That movie moment changed Savini’s life forever, unleashing him on a mission to become Hollywood’s most terrifying special effects makeup artist. “Back then, I went to the library looking for books on makeup — it was tough. It was very hard to learn, so I would try and imitate what I saw in the movies with nose putty and really crude stuff,” says Savini. “Eventually, I realized I could make-up my friends. They would go home from school with cut throats and hair burned off — just with makeup — but their parents weren’t ready for that. They would say, ‘What happened to my kid?’ and ‘Who did this to you? Savini? Well, you can’t play with him anymore.’”
Despite the disgruntled neighborhood parents, young Savini still had friends — and they became the prime targets of his scare tactics. “When I was 12 years old, I would make myself up as a werewolf and hide in a tree,” he says. “I would wait for my friends to go by and then I would jump out of the tree, and you could hear them running around the neighborhood screaming! That’s exactly what I was after, I wanted to scare people, and that’s what I do today — I scare people.”
Scaring people is an understatement. Savini is responsible for bringing to life some of the most infamous monsters of all time including Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Jason in Friday the 13th, and of course, a ghastly slew of zombies in Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and Day of the Dead. When asked to pick a favorite, Savini says, “That’s difficult — they’re all like my children!”
He ignited the shocking leap in make-up and special effects quality seen in the horror/fantasy genre of film in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Savini terrorized audiences, giving them the new definition — his definition — of gruesome and earned himself the nickname “The Godfather of Gore.”
While most of his friends in the business have left their roots for the bright lights of New York or Los Angeles, Savini has remained tied to his hometown. “I’m still here. I’m 65, and I live in the house in Pittsburgh that I was born and raised in — I’ve never felt the need to leave,” he says. “I’ve been all over the world. I’ve done movies in Australia, South Africa, everywhere, and I always come home to Pittsburgh. I haven’t lost my sense of home.”
Not only is Savini living in Pittsburgh, but he is teaching here as well. Tom Savini’s Special Make-up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Pa., attracts students from all over the world. The 16-month program is designed to provide aspiring artists with the skills necessary to make it in the business — and there’s a lot of them. From model making to anatomy and anthropology, Savini’s school covers a wide range of skills. Students learn techniques from top-notch instructors and also get real life lessons from Savini’s firsthand experiences. “When I first get a script, I go through it and make a list of all of the effects. I don’t create a budget or anything — and this is what I tell my students to do — without talking to the director about every single effect first,” he says. “A script may say 17 bodies lying on the floor, but when you talk to the director he may say, ‘I’m going to put a big mirror up so six bodies will look like 12.’ Only after that conversation do you get a realistic picture of how much money you need, how many people you need, and how much time you need.”
Savini emphasizes the program’s collaborative nature. “It’s like a movie. One person cannot take credit,” he says.
However, the student’s final consists of a personal portfolio review by Tom Savini himself. “I want to make sure they are creating a portfolio because being able to prove what you do works. A portfolio shows me what you’ve done, what you’re capable of doing — it speaks for you. I make sure they are creating a great one for when they leave the place.”
Many of Savini’s students experience great success soon after completing the proram. Some go on to work on high-profile movie sets and others have been championing the competition on SciFi’s reality television show 'Face Off.' “The first season, four of my students were on the show, last season there were two, and this season there are two again,” says Savini. “'Face Off' comes to the school to audition the artists and look for potential contestants — it’s a regular thing.”
The show dishes out grueling challenges to contestants, asking them to create original characters in an extremely limited time frame. “I never miss an episode,” says Savini. “And when I watch, I can see who has training and who doesn’t, but it’s not just the training. It’s the imagination and putting it to use. The people that have been winning are the ones thinking outside of the box.”
In the end, Savini asserts that the reality television show accurately reflects the real-life business. “I teach my students that it’s one thing to be good, another thing to be fast. In this business, you have to be good and fast and able to think on your feet,” he says. “Limitations make you more creative, and this show illustrates that.”
Savini knows what he’s talking about and he loves sharing his wealth of knowledge with others. He also has a drive to keep learning and mastering new skills himself. For now, he is focused on his acting. “I just wrapped a movie with Quentin Tarantino, another one with Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen, and Lady Gaga. But, I still get effects jobs like crazy, and I am able to hand those over to the students at my school.”
By fostering young creative talent at his school, Savini has created a legacy of artists — all coming out of Pittsburgh. And although he has many talents, at the root of it all, he is truly the shaman of scary. Just listening to him fervently describe how to scare an audience is enough to give me goosebumps.
“You know, the best scares come from suspense. There’s a room. In that room there’s a door on the left and a door on the right. You show the monster, or the psycho, or the serial killer, or the time bomb behind that right door. A girl walks into the room from the door on the left and immediately the scare has started. The audience is involved, they can’t wait for her to get to that door on the right to see her fate. And, if you’re a smart director, you slow her down — she answers the phone, she breaks a nail — the audience wants that payoff, the scare is building. Then, when the timing is right, she opens that door and there’s nothing there. The audience feels relief, they laugh or sigh with disappointment, then — BAM — you jump out and scare them.”
Tom Savini’s Special Make-up Effects Program, dec.edu.
This article is featured in the October 2012 issue of WHIRL Magazine.
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