Tom Savini has been scaring the shit out of people for a very long time. His early work with director George Romero took the iconic zombie film Dawn of the Dead to a terrifying new level, thanks to his groundbreaking work in special FX makeup, which brought out the innate and realistic horror of an apocalyptic undead onslaught. He would go on to create more unforgettable cinematic nightmares such as Fluffy from 1982's Creepshow and Jason Voorhees in parts I and IV of slasher franchise Friday the 13th. Keeping his chosen craft alive while passing on his own skills, the makeup master even has his own Pittsburgh-based FX school that regularly churns out the skilled artists behind your favorite new movies, WWE masks and more.
A man of many trades, however, Savini is also widely recognized for his acting roles. Working on set with Romero for Dawn meant not only creating realistic illusions, but also playing a key on-screen part and performing stunts in the movie when they failed to "get their shit together." His appearance as "Sex Machine" in Robert Rodriguez's 1996 vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn is, according to him, his most widely recognizable role, but the list of films he's acted in is as long as his special effects resumé and even includes several works outside of horror like Judd Apatow's Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Quentin Tarantino's western Django Unchained.
Add to this his work as a director on films such as the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, and it becomes almost hard to understand how one person can accomplish so much in just one lifetime. But he's hardly resting on his laurels. Indeed, Savini recently directed an upcoming episode of Shudder's remake of Creepshow, titled By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain, adapted from a story written by Stephen King's son Joe Hill. Read on to find out more on his involvement with that project, his history in horror and, of course, his work with Corey Taylor on that polarizing new psycho mask the Slipknot singer has been showing off.
YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT YOUR HEROES LIKE LON CHANEY WITH SUCH REVERENCE IN THE PAST. WHAT'S IT LIKE TO KNOW THAT YOU NOW STAND AMONG THEM AS HORROR ROYALTY?
TOM SAVINI Every now and then I'm having a lucid, kind of introspective moment, like, just recently, I directed an episode of the Creepshow television series that's coming up, and the same question could be asked of what was it like to circle back because I did the original Creepshow, which is five little movies. So I think I have a difficult time with "What was it like?" questions because in those moments when I'm sitting in the director's chair realizing where I am now — and I do that often — I look around and remind myself, "Hey, you know, you're some place special," and it helps me enjoy it and get into it.
The Lon Chaney thing came up recently when Fangoria called me in an article "the man of a thousand faces" [after the 1957 Lon Chaney film of the same name]. That was the epitome. You know, you don't walk around with outward signs of your influences on you, so it's introspective when someone calls you that. I remember when I was a kid reading Famous Monsters magazine, and even today when I read it — I own every issue — I turn on the Fifties channels and listen to Fifties music, it's a whole experience. That's what was good, that's what was available, and I was enjoying it.
I'm going off on a tangent now, sorry, but I have a son named Lon, and I'm friends with Ron Chaney and the Chaney family, and I'm glad they keep his image alive. He's still a big hero.
IS THERE ANYBODY YOU SEE COMING UP IN HORROR TODAY WHO'S ON THAT LEVEL?
Yeah, there's quite a few actually. I have a school that teaches special effects here in Pittsburgh, and the student success rate is amazing. Just recently the Avengers: Endgame movie — nine of my students worked on that! There's a whole list. You name a popular or groundbreaking hero movie, and my students work on it so I see a lot of that in them. Some of them come in and they don't even know who Boris Karloff is. To me it's like, do some research if you want to be a makeup artist, research the greatest makeup that has ever been done! But that's very rare.
Let's see … Kevin Kirkpatrick is a student from my school who's working on a lot of stuff, mixed genres. A lot of my students work in movies, but also in prosthetic labs, dental labs, mask companies, toy companies, you know. When we first started the school 20 years ago, we thought we were training people just for the movies. Then we realized their training allows them to work in so many other places.
HOW ABOUT ACTORS?
Well, the actors that I just used in my Creepshow episode! I just met them and I'm astounded at how wonderful they were. But you know, what I realize is editing makes the movie. You go and you shoot what you want, the pieces you want, the way you see stuff happening, and your actors just blow it out of the water sometimes. I just had an actor who made me cry at an audition. Me and one of the producers were just weeping! I cast her, of course.
There's so many out there. Even going back to the Hammer films with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, just so many amazing actors in horror. That was some of the fun dealing with Corey Taylor with his masks. He knows all of that stuff. I find that the best, really successful people are well-read and well-versed in what's going on in the world and who their heroes are, and we [Taylor and Savini] have the same heroes.
AND YOU'RE THAT KIND OF HERO NOW FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE.
I'm amazed when I go places, like at a horror convention recently, and the guy who played Van Helsing in Mel Brooks' Dracula movie came up to me and called me "Sex Machine." Or I'll go backstage at wrestling since we do masks for a lot of the WWE, and I'm amazed they know me a Sex Machine. I went bicycling the other day and it started raining so I went under a bridge, and this couple was standing there and they knew who I was. I was three miles into the woods on a hiking thing, and somebody walked by and called me Sex Machine. I was in London walking on the street and this guy in a car yelled it as he drove by! Ten minutes later he's walking next to me and actually chased me down for an autograph.
I'm lucky that that part and other parts I've played is me without a lot of makeup on. I have friends like Doug Bradley, who was Pinhead in Hellraiser, and they wouldn't know it when he's normal so he gets a break in public.
BUT YOU GET TO BE "SEX MACHINE" FOREVER.
Ahh, I think so. Unless some other part comes up that buries that. Like many actors, I've done so many other things.
DO YOU EVER FEEL LIKE YOU'RE ALMOST BETTER KNOWN AS AN ACTOR THAN FOR YOUR EFFECTS WORK?
Oh yeah, listen: when I'm at horror conventions, I have photographs on my table from my career as a special effects makeup artist. I created Jason from the Friday the 13th movie, Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fluffy from Creepshow, so I have all those pictures up there, but I also have Sex Machine and some of the fans come up and wonder why I have all these makeup photos. "Oh, you do makeup, too?" I explain that it was a previous career.
I HONESTLY WOULD HAVE THOUGHT MORE PEOPLE KNEW YOU FOR THE SPECIAL EFFECTS THAN THE ACTING GIGS.
Yeah, I must have skipped a generation or something.
YOU'VE BEEN OPEN ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOUR EXPERIENCE IN VIETNAM AS A COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHER DIRECTLY INFLUENCED YOUR SPECIAL FX TECHNIQUES. DO YOU THINK THAT ENDED UP BEING A HEALTHY WAY TO CHANNEL THE TRAUMA YOU ENDURED ONCE YOU CAME HOME?
You know, people think that my interest in horror movies began in Vietnam, but that's not true. It started when I was 11 years old. Vietnam was a lesson in anatomy for me. I was the only makeup artist who had seen the real thing, and that certainly affects my works. Most artists don't know, and I've seen this in the movies, they'll go to a crime scene the next day and the blood is red. That never happens! That blood in 24 hours turns kind of a burnt amber brown.
Every cadaver I've seen — I've said this to Quentin Tarantino and everybody who is a director who does a lot of killing and murdering — all the muscles, they don't work anymore, including the jaw! You've got all these people in movies and they're trying to look pretty for the camera with their mouths closed. The jaw is lax and hangs open. There's been a few actors like Danny Trejo and Peter Coyote who know what it looks like to be dead, and they don't care what they look like. It just ruins a movie for me when an actor's doing a death thing or an effect, and he closes his mouth and tries to look pretty for the camera.
To me, my effects had to be anatomically correct. I get letters from kids, 14 or 15 years old, who are gluing chunks of sponges to their face and pouring blood over their heads. And they have a letterhead: "Joe Blow's Makeup Effects" or you know, that kind of deal. They want to be a makeup artist's assistant, but they don't know anything about it. But anatomically correct — that gives people a feeling of something they've not seen, and that's what you need there.
I felt a safety behind the camera. I'm looking at horrible stuff, and my job was to photograph it. It did affect me, not as bad as the guys on the front lines, but I came home and I was an emotionless zombie for a year and a half. My marriage went right in the toilet, I was completely traumatized. We didn't call it PTSD back then, but I certainly had it. I was just emotionless because you have to turn off your emotions when you're in a situation like that with dead bodies and stuff. I'm just this innocent, monster-loving Italian kid from Little Italy and boom! Suddenly you're in this environment where your emotions get turned off, and they don't come back on, you know?
So I came back, and I was a zombie. It was a movie that brought my emotions back. I saw Midnight Cowboy, and when Dustin Hoffman died in that, I went berserk in the theater. I was totally out of control and weeping loudly. I mean, the theater emptied and I was still there with my ex-wife and a friend who was with me. I finally calmed down and went outside only to have another attack hugging on to the pole of the marquee, just went nuts.
And you know, it was sad that Dustin Hoffman died, but I think it was all of this built up in me, ready to be released, and from that day on I was a different person. I could enjoy a beautiful sunset. I was more sensitive. I was the way I used to be. So yeah, Vietnam had that kind of effect on me and rendered me emotionless, but it taught me so much as far as my effects. They have a reputation for realism that comes from that experience. If the stuff I create doesn't give me the same feeling I got when I saw the real stuff, then the fake stuff isn't real enough, you know what I means? [Laughs]
IT SOUNDS LIKE FILM IN GENERAL HELPED YOU GET BACK IN TOUCH WITH YOUR TRUE SELF AFTER YOU LOST IT FOR WHILE.
Movies change lives. Man of a Thousand Faces changed mine! Your point of view is based on your experiences, so you know, if I'm on a set, like when I was directing Creepshow, I'll get a thought, an idea of a shot. Clearly somebody else did if before, but it will be apropos and meaningful and powerful. It's part of your tool kit and your ammunition as an artist
WITH YOUR "TOOL KIT" IN MIND, WHAT PART OF YOUR CAREER DO YOU THINK HAS COME THE MOST NATURALLY TO YOU VERSUS WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE?
I was actually a dancer-actor first, so I thought I was going to be a choreographer. I was the lead actor in all the high school musicals. But see that makeup kit is something that always called me to it. Even when I put it aside, up in the attic and doing something else, the makeup kit was always there.
I was just lucky that the first films I got with George Romero required my skills as a special makeup effects artist, but I also did the stunts, and I also played a part. I was even a still photographer on a movie in Florida. I wrote a book called Grande Illusions and I think it was one of the first sentences that said, "If you want to be involved in movies, the more you do, the more you might get to do."
I always tell my students, "Just get in the door!" You know, sweep the floors! Just get in there, then they get to know you, they may get to like you, then you can advance yourself. That was part of my success — it grew with my ability to do more. They couldn't get their act together enough to hire stunt guys on Dawn of The Dead so I said, "Well, I can do that," because I'm a gymnast, so here I am diving off balconies at the mall or getting hit by trucks and doing all the makeup and playing a part.
The parts I played in that movie weren't even in the script! I just threw on a costume and wanted to be in the movie. George Romero wanted to see more and more of it, and suddenly I'm the leader of a bike gang. That's the fun. Dawn of the Dead was three months of Halloween every day. That's a joy for me.
ONCE YOU MOVED INTO IT, DID YOU FIND DIRECTING MORE CHALLENGING?
No, I prefer directing and being behind the camera. I think the most difficult thing is acting. You, as an actor, you have to cry. You know, you have to cry in 30 seconds. Imagine what you would have to do to yourself to produce tears! That's what an actor does. So I think that's the hardest thing there is, being an actor.
I've been there, I've done the whole method thing, and I have produced tears, but that's tough. But as the director, you're in charge of every department, and that's the ultimate experience. So, here you go, I'm in Pittsburgh right now in my living room, but a month ago I was directing Creepshow. I think my biggest decision today was, "Am I going to Whole Foods today?" [laughs], but down there it was 50 questions! Fifty decisions a minute! You know what I mean? So that was the tight rope for me. That's where life exists: on the high wire. The rest is just waiting to get up there.
You don't direct something unless, when you read it, it inspires you to do all these visual things you can't wait to do. That's the fun, and it's the frustration. Hitchcock did this thing, and lots of other directors I know, they do the whole thing on paper first: storyboards, shot lists, then do the movie. Now you have to go create the pieces for the movie, and that can be frustrating if you're not getting what you want. I've been lucky that I try and get what I've imagined, but directing is the most challenging and sometimes the most frustrating.
Makeup effects is just, uh … I went home covered in blood every day. Now I have a school that teaches it and I have crews on my films, but I moved on a long time ago from that to doing acting and directing and that's where I stay now. Every now and then, something pops up. Somebody needs a mask, wrestlers need masks. We do masks for five or six wrestlers now, and I might design it or I have a crew who create it then I approve it. I'm not covered in blood every day anymore.
HOW DID THE NEW COREY TAYLOR MASK COME ABOUT?
It's amazing. I was on a plane with my wife looking at old photographs, and there's a picture of her with Corey in 2014. I think it was my assistant, Jason Baker, who talked to him backstage at a show and Corey mentioned needing a mask. I guess my assistant said like, "Hey, I work for Tom Savini," and the next thing you know Corey Taylor is in my house playing with my cats, then we made a cast of him.
Then we did the mask, and the mask has gone crazy! There was a lot of negative response, initially. I just got a copy of Kerrang! with Corey talking about the man behind the mask — about me — in that magazine, but the fans were like, "Savini? Oh shit, my sister could have done better than that." Someone even fastened a milk carton to their face and posted a side-by-side and said, "Nailed it!" Regardless, the mask looks excellent.
IT'S REALLY CHILLING.
You know, he puts the makeup on underneath it, the hood, everything. It's a nice mask, but he sells it. He's the one who makes it look the way it looks.
WERE YOU A SLIPKNOT FAN BEFORE YOU MET COREY?
It wasn't really the kind of music I listen to, but my wife was. She's a music fanatic … hum three bars of anything and she can tell you what it is. So she knows everybody and my assistant, as well, but I've come to know folks like this from when they come through horror conventions.
TELL US ABOUT THE COFFEE TABLE BOOK YOU HAVE COMING OUT SOON.
They're trying to plan a release for around Halloween, and it's a biography so there's lot of photos from the stage and certainly tons of stuff from the moves. To me, it's a coffee table photo book, but it is a biography. At the end, there's a bunch of journals from the movies I've worked on. On a lot of movies, I did a journal every day so they're in there. Then there's a scrapbook with photos no one's ever seen.
DID YOU WRITE ALL THE BIOGRAPHICAL BITS?
I wrote most of it, but there's a section on my movies that was written by the publisher so it could be subjective using what he knew from interviews and things about the movies. There's also another book I'm working on, the Night of the Living Dead '90 — the remake I directed — I had, like, 600 storyboards from that. It's called "The Version You've Never Seen Before," and I got to do maybe 30 percent of what I intended to do on that movie, so this is all those storyboards and captions and imitations and stories to give you a feeling that this is the movie you could have seen. That's coming around Halloween, as well.
SO YOU'VE GOT ALL THAT COMING AND THIS EPISODE OF CREEPSHOW ON THE WAY …
We haven't been allowed to talk about it, but they made an official announcement last week so hopefully we can talk about it now. I am involved as a director of an episode. Stephen King's son, Joe Hill, wrote my episode.
WHEN YOU WERE APPROACHED, WAS IT AN AUTOMATIC YES OR WERE YOU HESITANT TO JUMP BACK ON BOARD AFTER SO LONG?
Well, the producer is Greg Nicotero, and I've known Greg since he was 14 — we have a whole history together. He was my assistant on a few movies before he started his own company, so it was him and he's done a lot to include things from the movie in the new series. He's really appealing to the fans of the original, so he wanted me. I did the original Creepshow, Adrienne Barbeau is involved, it's the same animator, a lot of the same music. He's really appealing to the charm of the original movie and the fans who enjoy that.
So for my involvement: I jumped on it. I had to be involved. One, I've been wanting to work with Greg for a long time. He also produces The Walking Dead, you know, he's one of the exec producers on that and his company KNB does all the makeup effects. That's also why we shot in Atlanta since it's the home base for The Walking Dead. A lot of the people on the crew, too, were from The Walking Dead. They were wonderful.
OUTSIDE OF THAT, ARE THERE ANY OTHER SERIES OR MOVIES YOU'VE SEEN RECENTLY THAT REALLY IMPRESSED YOU?
No, not a lot. Most of the time I'm disappointed because, to me, makeup effect is a magic trick. We're like a magician, making you believe what you're seeing is really happening. Magic to me has always been a part of that. I'm a card-carrying member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood. You have to be a magician to be a member of that place. It helps that I've written two books called Grande Illusions because that's what I call makeup effects because they really are magic tricks. I don't see a lot of that with the gross effects, the torture porn, the disaster movies. I just don't care about them at all.
A LOT OF THAT STUFF DOESN'T SCARE SO MUCH AS IT GIVES ANXIETY.
In fact, I'm a little scared of seeing Once Upon a Time in America. You know, I don't want to go into that house and see what happened. I hope there's very little of that … I'm more interested in DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and the parts they play. And you know, it's Quentin Tarantino so if anybody is going to shoot it viscerally and as it actually happened, it would be him. I'm a little nervous about seeing that.
It sounds strange coming from me. I'm the "King of Gore" or "The Sultan of Splatter," all these things I've been called, but emotionally, that's why I don't want to see the torture porn stuff. I don't want to see people suffer. See, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, they were all mythological and didn't really exist so you have a safety there. But the maniac! To me, the scariest things are people. Like mass shootings, you never know when someone, some deranged idiot, is going to walk around the corner and start shooting people. That's the scary stuff today. When I was a kid, the scary stuff was [I Was a] Teenage Frankenstein. Today, it's the guy down the street.
HAVE YOU WATCHED CHERNOBYL YET? I JUST FINISHED IT AND NEARLY HAD A PANIC ATTACK AT SEVERAL POINTS, AND ALL THAT SHIT IS REAL. IT'S INSANE.
I want to, but I haven't seen it yet. That's something I love, the historical stuff — it really happened! We really relate to stuff like that.
WELL, I JUST HAVE ONE MORE FOR YOU: AFTER THIS LONG IN THE INDUSTRY AND THROUGH SO MANY ITERATIONS OF YOUR CAREER, WHAT KEEPS YOU INTERESTED IN SCARING PEOPLE?
Well, I love — love — scaring people. I've loved scaring people since I was a kid, and oh! My poor mother. I would take forever to sneak down the creaky steps so that she wouldn't hear me coming with this werewolf mask on or something, you know, sneak up behind her as quietly as possible and just be there, knowing that when she turned …
You have to be patient to scare people. I hear kids playing outside, and I'll jump out of bed. I'm in my underwear, but I'll grab the Fluffy puppet from Creepshow and sneak down the alley and growl and they all start running into each other screaming. I just love it. My poor wife, I get her constantly.
We were just in L.A. and I stayed with one of my friends, and I patiently stood still in the entrance of his bathroom waiting for him to come home after walking the dog so I can reach out and grab him. I just really enjoy scaring the hell out of people. I look for opportunities like that. I'll stand behind a curtain for 15 minutes waiting for someone to walk by just so I can scare them. I love it.
SO IT'S TRULY YOUR PASSION, NOT JUST A JOB.
Oh yeah, really. To me, it's hilarious.