With Halloween just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to revisit the career of the legendary makeup and prosthetics artist Tom Savini. Wild Eye Releasing is on the case, making Jason Baker’s documentary Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini available VOD and digital platforms on Oct. 19.*
Smoke and Mirrors opens with a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the speech delivered by Edward Van Sloan at the beginning of James Whale’s Frankenstein, offering a “friendly warning” of the terrors that lie ahead, and concluding with “So, if any of you would prefer to not place your nerves under such a strain, now’s your chance to….Well, we warned you. ” This is followed by a montage of brief clips highlighting Savini’s talents as an actor, stuntman, and director, before getting to what we’re all here for: Savini the makeup and special effects artist on films like Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, and Creepshow. This introduction is the first of a number of clever callbacks to old-fashioned moviemaking that add a creative touch to a documentary that’s otherwise mostly talking.
The core of Smoke and Mirrors is a series of interviews with Savini, supplemented with archival clips and interviews with the likes of George Romero, Robert Rodriguez, and Tony Todd. Savini was the sixth child born to an Italian family of modest means but abundant talent in Pittsburgh. One brother, training to be a mortician, was a sculptor on the side, and Savini recalls his sister reproducing the Sunday cartoons so accurately it was hard to tell her work from the printed versions. Savini credits his father, an immigrant who “could do everything” from carpentry to electricity while holding down a full-time mill job, with teaching him the importance of versatility and making do with what you have, while his mother fostered his love of movies.
Joseph Pevney’s 1957 Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces was a particularly important influence on Savini, because it taught him that the monsters on the screen were actually created by someone—a realization that convinced him that he could also become a makeup artist. He got his start as an actor at age 14, playing Dracula on the “Giant Chiller-Diller Scream Show, which was basically a magic show with appearances by actors made up as famous film monsters. In high school, Savini enjoyed performing in theatre productions, which offered him the chance to step outside himself. As he puts it: “When you’re on stage, in the theatre, you’re playing a part—you’re not you any more, to them or to yourself.” He was good enough that another Pittsburgh native, George Romero, recruited him for a film (that unfortunately never got made).
Savini was fortunate to grow up at a time when horror movies were regularly on television, thanks to the 1957 and 1958 releases of the “Shock Theatre” and “Son of Shock” packages of horror and crime films. These releases allowed anyone with access to a television to watch classic films like James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933) for free, as well as more forgettable efforts like The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and The Spider Woman Fights Back (1946). Local TV stations often put together late-night weekend programming built around these films—Omaha had the “Creature Feature” introduced by “Dr. San Guinary,” and in Pittsburgh, they had “Chiller Theatre,” hosted by “Chilly Billy Cardille.” If the hosting was a bit amateur and local, that was an advantage to a young man finding his way in the business, because Savini was able to get on air with Cardille, bringing along friends that he had made up to look like movie monsters.
Serving as a combat photographer in Vietnam, Savini was exposed to scenes of terrible gore, requiring him to “turn off his emotions” in order to survive. He returned home “a zombie,” which led to a divorce; he found his way back through theatre, doing makeup as well as acting at multiple theatres. That led him to Carnegie-Mellon, where he was granted a full scholarship in the acting and directing program, and to doing makeup for George Romero’s films, beginning with Martin and Dawn of the Dead (both 1978). The rest, as they say, is history.
Savini has experienced his share of rough knocks, but chooses to focus on the positive. He got some lucky breaks as well—like being born at a time when popular interest in horror movies was reviving, and when local television and theatre offered plenty of opportunities to break in—but the key element in his success was recognizing what he wanted to do and going for it. This simple approach resulted in his not only making a living, but becoming one of the best in the world, while doing something he loved.
Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini will be available on VOD and digital platforms beginning Oct. 19; further information is available from the Wild Eye Releasing web site.
*In case the title sounds familiar: this is the same doc originally released in 2015, and that has been available from time to time on the festival circuit and digitally. The whole concept of the “release date” has less relevance for films mostly seen via digital streaming rather than theatrical release, so I’m just stating this as a clarification. Smoke and Mirrors is a must-see for horror fans, especially if you missed it during previous windows of availability.