By Steve Newton
When Tom Savini’s remake of George Romero’s zombie classic The Night of the Living Dead came out in 1990 I did a phone interview with the gore-FX guru. That was cool.
Blood and guts aren’t pretty. Neither is brain matter. But when it comes to the horror genre, those type of bodily components come in pretty handy. As Stephen King says: “I will try to terrify, but if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.”
Nobody lives by this credo, in the filmic sense, better than make-up effects man Tom Savini, the “King of Splatter”. Whether coming up with twisted vampire rites in Martin, an inventive way to slaughter Jason in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, or a dozen new ways to kick zombie butt in Dawn of the Dead, Savini has been shocking horror audiences for nearly 20 years. His make-up credits include every film that primo fright director George Romero has been involved with, with the exception of 1968’s ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead.
Because he was soldiering in Vietnam at the time, Savini missed his calling on Romero’s cult classic. But as if to make amends, Romero handed Savini the directorial reins for the new remake of the film, which opened in Vancouver recently. On the line from L.A. last week, the Pittsburgh-born Savini explained the approach he took to dealing with the real stars of the film—several dozen staggering, deteriorating zombies. Or “dead things”, as he likes to call them.
“I hated calling them zombies,” says Savini. “To me zombie implies Haiti and voodoo, and to me that’s not scary. I would rather think of them as dead things walkin’ around again. Effects-wise, if I could take cadavers and mechanize them, that would be the way to do it. You can’t do that, of course, but that’s the look I wanted to see.”
Although it’s debatable whether Savini’s $4.7 million remake lives up to its $130,000 namesake, the film does pay its respects to the original from the very start, with the classic line “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” Then there’s the less obvious shot of a garden trowel, which film buffs may recall was wielded quite nastily by the original’s child zombie. And the black-and-white stills at the end of the remake are another homage to Romero’s cult classic.
Savini himself was one of the few people who wasn’t strongly affected by the original Night when it first came out. It grew on him, though.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was…crude. But then when it caught on and I saw it again and again, I started to see why it affected people the way it did, politically and otherwise, the main message being if we could just get along, we can survive. Of course, it was difficult for me to react to anything emotionally at that time, because I had just returned from Vietnam and was sort of emotionally dead. So it took a while to sink in.”
Not surprisingly, Savini’s role as combat photographer in Vietnam has helped his chosen career in obvious ways. “My experience in Vietnam helped with my anatomy lesson, in seeing firsthand what the real stuff looks like. The feeling you get from looking at the real stuff—if I didn’t get that from my effects work I wouldn’t think it was perfect enough.”
Savini first caught the make-up bug long before he was of enlistment age, though. At 12 or 13 he saw the Lon Chaney bio-pic, Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney. There were plenty of other films that fuelled his imagination, too. “Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, This Island Earth—you name it. Any movie that had effects or make-ups in it I would try to duplicate on my own face when I got home.”
Happily married, with a five-year-old daughter and a son who’s currently stationed on the battleship Midway in the Persian Gulf, Savini doesn’t come across in conversation as particularly demented. But doesn’t one have to be just a little morbid to excel at his profession?
“I don’t think it’s essential.” says Savini. “All we do is take the script and create the effects as realistically as we possibly can in the time we have. People don’t realize how much art, how much sculpture and mechanics is involved in doing even the splatter effects.”
Maybe Savini himself is safe from gore overload—but what about the kids that lap up his bloody art? He’s a little more concerned about that.
“I get a lot of mail from kids, and out of the thousands I have dealt with, one or two are scary. One or two of the people who call me scare me a bit, and I wonder…I better get their names and addresses in case I’m shot somewhere, so people know who to look for. But I agree with George [Romero] that splatter films defuse any kind of killer instinct. Maybe it defuses it for those two kids. I hope so.”