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Interview: Tom Savini

Tom Savini

Tom Savini

Perhaps the most anticipated guest presence at the Third Annual Calgary Horror Con was special effects maverick and actor/director Tom Savini. Any horror fan that is well versed in the slasher/splatter movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s would recognize him as the man who created the breakthrough practical effects of that particular era. He left a permanent bloody imprint on the horror genre with movies like Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Creepshow, The Burning, Deathdream, The Prowler… and the list goes on. He even blew up his own head in the most memorable sequence in William Lustig’s seminal psychological slasher flick, Maniac! He’s become so synonymous with movie magic that Savini even appeared as himself in an episode of the animated pop culture behemoth The Simpsons.

Not only did he pave the way for aspiring practical effects artists (indirectly as someone who is often idolized by up-and-coming gore gurus, and directly as the face of his own self-titled Special Make-up Effects Program at the Douglas Institute), but he also went on to direct the first—and only Romero-produced and official—remake of George Romero’s formative zombie opus, Night of the Living Dead. Savini’s reimaging of NOTLD was celebrated during the evening of the first day of the Third Annual Calgary Horror Con with a special anniversary screening and reunion panel discussion at the Plaza Theatre with lead cast members Tony Todd, Bill Moseley and Patricia Tallman—and, of course, the splatter wizard himself.

Savini has also acted in a handful of movies, including From Dusk ‘til Dawn, Planet Terror and Lost Boys: The Tribe as well as done stunt work for many. An avid photographer with an educational background in photojournalism, he familiarized himself with the realistic, visceral nature of real gore as a photographer in the Vietnam War in the ‘60s. This experience has shined through his proven ability to create some of the most impressive and talked-about special effects in the history of horror cinema. On top of all of the aforementioned feats, Savini is also an ardent fencer, acrobat and existential philosopher. At the Calgary Horror Con, I had the pleasure of tapping into Savini’s intellectual side, while also talking movies and some of his upcoming projects. Read on for the juicy details.

DIABOLIQUE: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but of all the movies you’ve created FX for, which was the most challenging?

TOM SAVINI: Probably Creepshow because it was five [different] movies and it was just me and a 17-year-old kid that did all that stuff—the “Fluffy” monster, the corpse, etc. But, you know, we did have a lot of time beforehand to work on it. So that had to be it, because I had never done an animatronic creatures before, and that’s what “Fluffy” was. So that would have to have been the most challenging; everything else was a breeze.

DIABOLIQUE: So would you say that particular segment (“The Crate”) was the most challenging?

SAVINI: No, the whole movie was because, like I said, it was five movies and each one was full of major effects.

 DIABOLIQUE: And what was your favorite movie to create the FX for?

SAVINI: Well, Creepshow! It was great hanging out with Hal [Holbrook], because I thoroughly enjoyed him as Mark Twain on the NBC special [Mark Twain Tonight!], and Fritz Weaver—just watching those guys. Ed Harris was there. The cockroaches; that was not an enjoyable but certainly a memorable sequence. I was never in the same room as those roaches. I hate bugs.

Tom Savini

Tom Savini

DIABOLIQUE: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned throughout your journey as an educator in the field of special makeup FX design?

SAVINI: Well, it’s not what’s important to me; it’s what I can convey to [the students] that’s important. And that is that I make sure that they photograph everything they do. And they have to have a portfolio to graduate. You know, there’s no formula for success out there, but what works is: learn how [to photograph], photograph everything you do and you put those photographs in front of people that can help hire you. That works.

Stephen King’s definition of success is being in the right place at the right time, and being ready. Any fool can put their self in the right place at the right time, but to be ready—and that’s what the portfolio is. I tell [my students], “Don’t even go to 7-11 without it.” I mean, you can put your portfolio on a flash drive and keep it on your key chain. But you never know when you’re going to meet that person that can help or hire you.

DIABOLIQUE: Regarding last night’s reunion panel and screening of Night of the Living Dead (1990), what inspired you to remake Romero’s classic?

SAVINI: It wasn’t based on inspiration at all. It was George asking me to do it. It wasn’t me going and telling George, “Hey I want to remake it and direct it.” He came to me. Somebody handed it to me. Well when George said that he was going to remake Night of the Living Dead, I’m thinking, “Well great! I get to create zombies, I’m going to do a lot of makeup,” and he says, “No, I want you to direct it.” Well that put it me on a whole new level—a whole new way of thinking.

 DIABOLIQUE: If you could remake any classic movie, which would you choose and why?

SAVINI: The Most Dangerous Game—I’ve already written a screenplay for that. You know, it’s a great story and it is public domain, but the movie was crap. They didn’t take advantage of the fencing scenes. That was before all the great swashbucklers came out. So, my version of it is a swashbuckler.

DIABOLIQUE: Did you personally go about the casting choices for the NOTLD remake?

SAVINI: Oh absolutely, yes. I cast everyone. I cast Tony because—well Laurence Fishburne auditioned, Eriq La Salle auditioned—Tony came in and just blew them away. So I closed the book and that was it. Patty—I always had Patty in mind. We went to college together. She’s a stuntwoman and a tough, kick-ass girl, and I wanted Barbara to be Sigourney Weaver from Alien. Tom Towles, I cast him simply because he looked like Harry, and someone said he was awesome in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.  Bill Butler, I cast him just from his audition tape. McKee [Anderson] auditioned in New York; I cast him there. And Kate [Finneran], again a live audition in Pittsburgh.

DIABOLIQUE: I’ve spoken with many horror fans that say they prefer your version of NOTLD to Romero’s original. How do you feel about that?

SAVINI: I hear that a lot. You know, I kind of understand why. I’ve seen a lot of remakes. Some of them are trash and some of them are great. I watched the movie again last night and it’s a good movie. Everything about it is better. The explosion at the gas pump, the performances… The original one was shot almost like a documentary or a news program. Back then, most of the televisions in homes were black and white, and that’s how you saw the news. So that’s what lent authenticity to the original film. But I had to one-up it and I think we did it. Twenty-three years later, we’re still celebrating it. So we must have done something right.

Tom Savini on the set of "Friday the 13th"

Tom Savini on the set of “Friday the 13th”

DIABOLIQUE: What are your thoughts on the current state of the horror genre and the prevalence of CGI in modern horror and sci-fi?

SAVINI: Is there a current horror genre? I ask, my friends, “Name a horror movie.” We were going to go see The Conjuring tonight. From what I understand, it’s great. You’re talking to a very tough audience. It’s tough to scare me, although The Exorcist and Alien scared the hell out of me. But I don’t know. I’m not into torture porn, so those are not horror movies to me. The horror movies that I grew up on were the classics. The gruesome stuff didn’t happen on camera, it happened behind closed doors. And that made it more powerful, because you create—more powerfully, more viscerally—what you’re not seeing. Once the effects guy does it, that’s it. It’ll always be just that forever.

It’s just like the old radio shows. It’s two people in front of microphones, but with soundFX , creaky doors. You felt like you were in a haunted mansion. You created all that. Just like when you dream at night, you’re not plunged into a scenario, you create everything in your dreams from your thoughts. And I’m sure you’ve had detailed dreams—amazing dreams—that came out of your head. You’re seeing without using your eyeballs and you’re hearing sounds that don’t exist. What is that? To me, dreams are amazing things. The fact that it happens to us, I can’t believe people don’t make a bigger fuss over dreams. It’s as close as you can become to being God. Not God—but spirituality—where everything supposedly is created from intelligent thought. You’re doing the same thing when you’re dreaming. It’s the closest you’ll ever be to being God.

DIABOLIQUE: On that note, do you keep a dream journal?

SAVINI: I should, but it’s impossible because we’re programmed to forget them instantly. Now, why is that? I can remember today, so many things that occurred to me. Why can’t I remember things that occurred to me in a dream? I think we’re programmed to forget, because I believe in reincarnation. So I think when we die and invade another body, we’re programmed to forget the previous life. There are some great books out there. Anyway, I’m very into reincarnation and dreams. We don’t know what the hell life is about. It’s all just one adventure after another. To me it’s like, enjoy every second of it. My motto is, “Have fun no matter what.” This way, you’ll have a fun life, minute to minute.

DIABOLIQUE: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you’re a fan of love stories. Is this because love—like fear—is one of the primal human emotions?

SAVINI: No, I think I just grew up as a very sensitive kid. I cried when E.T. died—and it’s a puppet! It’s a manipulation—it’s a sincere, strategic, well-done manipulation with music and what you’re seeing. I cried when Elvis Presley died in Love Me Tender. I’m a pushover. But love stories—yeah, there’s something about them. I cry when somebody does something good for somebody, not something horrible. I avoid all the horrible stuff. But to me, when a human being is sincerely generous, or kind or overly helpful to another human being, that’s when I tear up. I just love the idea of love.

DIABOLIQUE: What are your favorite love stories?

SAVINI: There’s one called Trapeze with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Two for the Road with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn. There’s quite a few out there.

Tom Savini and Michael Biehn in "Planet Terror"

Tom Savini and Michael Biehn in “Planet Terror”

DIABOLIQUE: You took on the role of Mr. Callahan in the coming-of-age drama/romance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower—which was obviously a significant change from the roles you’ve played in horror and action movies. What can you say about that particular character and your experience working on that film?

SAVINI: Well I’m sure people wondered, “What the hell is he doing in this movie?” Nothing really though. He’s just a high school teacher and I know what they’re like so it was easy to do that. I thought the movie was going to be a teenage romp but it’s a very serious movie and done really well. You have to see it.

DIABOLIQUE: Your segment of The Theatre Bizarre was one of the more subversive entries in that anthology. What inspired “Wet Dreams”?

SAVINI: A dream that I had when I was a kid. The whole opening sequence is a dream I had when I was 9 years old. The woman with the tentacles… you know.

DIABOLIQUE: Let’s talk about the fate of your character, Osiris Amanpour, in Machete. His death is only shown in the deleted scenes. Robert Rodriguez has said in interviews that he intentionally restricted the fate of the character to the deleted scenes so that he could bring him back in Machete Kills. So is this true, will you be reprising your role as Osiris Amanpour in Machete Kills?

SAVINI: Yes, a big part—bigger than in the original. It opens October 11th.

DIABOLIQUE: Is it true that you’re going to be remaking Bob Clark’s seminal zombie movie, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things? What new ideas do you plan to bring to the reimagining?

SAVINI: Well they’ve asked me to do it. I wish that they would finish the script because I’d love to start it.

DIABOLIQUE: Who’s writing the script?

SAVINI: Drew Daywalt. He wrote the original one. But I kind of changed the concept. It’s a theatre company in the original movie—but this is a movie company going off to shoot a zombie movie. And of course the zombie uprising happens. And we kind of hope to associate the movie crew with George Romero and Russ Streiner. Anyway, imagine zombies in makeup getting killed by real zombies, coming back as zombies in zombie makeup.

DIABOLIQUE: That sounds like a riot! Describe your past working relationship with the late Bob Clark.

SAVINI: I was also directed by him in my first movie, Deathdream. Then we went to Canada and did Deranged. I think I might have met him a couple of times after that, but that was my two associations with him.

DIABOLIQUE: You’re pretty well as established as anyone in the film industry could be—having directed, acted, done stunt work, created special FX, mentored students in the fine art of special FX creation, etc… so what’s next? What else would you like to accomplish in life, be it film-related or not?

SAVINI: Well, directing is intoxicating, acting is the hardest thing that there is to do, and special FX creation is messy. Photography is something that I’ll always be doing. So anything involving my hobbies, like fencing and acrobatics. I want to wear a cape and ride a horse and carry a sword. If I can do that in a movie, great!

Tom Savini in "From Dusk 'til Dawn"

Tom Savini in “From Dusk ’til Dawn”

You can find out more about Tom’s upcoming projects at his official website, www.Savini.com, or follow Tom Savini on Twitter: @TomSavini. For more from Tom Savini, Machete Kills and Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, check back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com! Also, don’t forget to pick up Diabolique Issue #17, our incredibly great and star-studded horror-comedy issue, which is available for preorder now, available at the App Store now for iPad / iPhone users (Free with a Digital Subscription!) and will be on shelves and available for Digital Download on other platforms soon!

By Lacey Paige

Lacey is a devoted horror enthuasiast and movie collector. A recent journalism school graduate, she is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique, Cinesploitation, Absolute Underground and Fangoria. She likes taking long walks in dark, eerie places; reading true crime and horror fiction; and sharing her borderline-obsessive love of horror with just about anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter: @LaceyPaige88.

About Lacey Paige

Lacey is a devoted horror enthuasiast and movie collector. A recent journalism school graduate, she is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique, Cinesploitation, Absolute Underground and Fangoria. She likes taking long walks in dark, eerie places; reading true crime and horror fiction; and sharing her borderline-obsessive love of horror with just about anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter: @LaceyPaige88.

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