Q&A: Tom Savini

The multi-hyphenate horror legend Tom Savini talks tattoos and terror.

In 1978 horror history was irrevocably altered by a man who had already done so 10 years prior. The film in question was Dawn of the Dead, the go-for-broke color sequel-cum-companion film to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, both of them written and directed by George A. Romero, both landmarks of the genre. But Romero, the godfather of the modern shocker, didn’t do it alone. In Dawn, his right-hand man was fellow Pittsburgh resident and frequent collaborator Tom Savini, a fledgling special makeup effects wizard who previously had both acted in and spurted ample blood in Romero’s 1977 film Martin. But with Dawn, Savini—armed only with a toolbox full of greasepaint, bags of squibs, foam latex, and kitchen spoils—sculpted a full-blown symphony of bodily decimation as the living blew holes through the living dead to avoid ending up as lunch. In the middle of the mall-bound cannibalism and exploding skull orgy, Savini single-handedly invented the subgenre of “splatter.”

As the ’70s oozed into the ’80s Savini’s sanguinary star swelled, and his practical, ingenious illusions graced such iconic films as Friday the 13th (both the original and the equally messy fourth installment), the sickening Taxi Driver riff Maniac, Romero’s Creepshow and Day of the Dead, and oodles of others. But there’s more to Savini than painted rubber and Karo syrup. He’s a rather prolific actor (you can see him now in the gonzo Robert Rodriquez sequel Machete Kills), noted director (he helmed the Romero-penned remake of Night of the Living Dead), author, educational figurehead (his Special Makeup Effects Program at Douglas Education Center is thriving), and recently minted tattoo enthusiast. It is with the latter credit that INKED finds its entry point into the still-evolving legacy of one of horror’s most respected and fascinating figures.

INKED: How old were you when the needle first touched your skin?

TOM SAVINI: Oh man, I was, like, 55 when I got my first tat. See, my oldest brother, Henry, is a well-known tattoo artist. He runs Tattooing by Savini in Corapolos, PA.

Why did you wait so long?

You have to understand, tattoo culture is relatively new to me. When I was a kid growing up it was only bikers and convicts who got tattooed. Getting one myself really was something I never even entertained until much, much later.

Can you tell us a bit about your tattoos?

Sure. Paul Acker from Deep Six Laboratory is the artist who did the initial skull tattoos. Fantastic work. Then my brother Henry added the center tribal skulls—and believe it or not, it was George Romero’s son Andrew Romero who fleshed out the three points on the bottom. I’m incredibly proud of the work.

Are the skulls symbolic or simply an aesthetic choice?

Nah, not symbolic of anything. I just love skulls, always have. I have a rather large collection of skulls at home.

How about the names on your forearms?

Lia is my daughter, and on the other arm is her son—my grandson, James.

Have you found the process addictive?

Oh, sure it is.

Are you plotting another?

I am! There are a few ideas I’m working on right now, in fact. It will happen soon.

Aside from your brother, was there a member of your family who influenced your personal and professional life?

Well, my dad was a guy who did it all, and his philosophy was that the more you do the more opportunities you’ll have. I agree with this. But it wasn’t just my dad—I had my brothers, who were like my dads. I had Henry, as I mentioned; my brother Sullivan, who was a physical fitness nut, which is where I get the desire to stay in shape; my brother Joe, who is a comedian and helped shape my sense of humor; and I had another brother who passed when I was 13. All of these people influenced who I am and what I became.

When you look back on your incredible career—the rules you broke, the ways in which you made an entire generation watch and enjoy film—it’s admirable and inspiring that you are constantly living in the present, in the moment. Is that difficult sometimes?

Not now it’s not, not for me. One of the most important books I have ever read, the one that changed my life, was a book called The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. It’s a popular book—well-read. But it’s changed everything for me. It taught me not to be concerned about tomorrow or worry about mistakes of the past but simply live in the present moment. That’s literally all we have is today. Ten years from now all we’ll have is today. This has helped me love life and live it to its fullest. I can appreciate my legacy, and I’m proud of my reputation because it got me here. But I live in the now.

Regarding that rich legacy, however, what are you most proud of?

Well, besides my children and my grandson … directing, I think. Or at least that gives me the most pleasure. You know, I just came back from a convention in Calgary where there was a Night of the Living Dead remake reunion. We had Patricia Tallman, me, Tony Todd—it was an absolute blast, and I watched the film again for the first time in years. You know what? It really holds up. It’s a really good zombie film.

It got knocked around initially, and it’s fantastic to see the sizable cult that it now has.

I agree. It took a while. But people love it now, I think. I think the key to that is the performances, what we did with the character of Barbara—making her tougher, stronger, like a Sigourney Weaver heroine.

Plus, even more than Romero’s original, your version proves how fatal it can be to board yourself up in a zombie apocalypse.

Oh yeah, only an idiot would board themselves up. If such a thing ever happened, I would run for my life to my house and load myself up with all of my guns I can carry and the rest in a shopping cart and go out and blast the living shit out of every zombie I could find. I mean, how much fun would that be?

On the directing tip, you steered a few episodes of the lamented TV series Tales From the Darkside, but we were really impressed with your more recent effort in the short film Wet Dreams, which was part of the superlative omnibus The Theatre Bizarre.

Thank you! We had Debbie Rochon in that one. She was so good.

When will we see another Savini-directed picture?

Well, we are currently launching a Kickstarter campaign for a new zombie film I’ll be directing.

Will you be handling special effects too?

Well, what I do now—with the school and with film—is consult. I mentor new talent to do these magic tricks, these grand illusions. It’s what I do with my school. It’s what I did recently in the Australian horror film Redd Inc. [aka Inhuman Resources]. It’s what I’ve always done, guide people into creating these effects in economical and effective ways. But you know, right now, I’m really enjoying my acting work. I have this scene with Danny [Trejo] in Machete Kills where it’s really honest and emotional. If you saw Machete, you’ll remember I played this horrible human being, this terrible guy who killed Machete’s brother. Here, I was given the chance for a kind of redemption.

The world of special effects has changed since you and Rob Bottin and Rick Baker et al were viewed as rock stars of foam latex.

You’re talking about CGI, right?

Yeah. Do you embrace or reject it?

I love CGI but it has to be done well. When it’s blended seamlessly with practical makeup effects it’s outstanding. Look at what Greg Nicotero did with The Walking Dead. Those are the best zombies I’ve ever seen, and they’re a mixture of digital and practical. His work in Romero’s Land of the Dead was great too.

In Land you actually played a zombie, one of the have-nots rising up against the haves and a riff on your biker character in Dawn. Did Romero give you any motivation before rolling?

Yeah, slam the shit out of the guy who comes up to me! And later they tweaked it with a great CGI effect on him where he splits into two.

What do you think of extreme violence in contemporary horror cinema?

Generally it’s not my idea of entertainment.

But it was your work that in part gave birth to films like this, no?

I may have spearheaded the leaning toward this trend to some degree, true. My work has always traded in gruesome and clever deaths, but the films that people call “torture porn” are not my cup of tea and give me no kind of pleasure.

You’re a monster guy.

I am.

You have a son named Lon, after Lon Chaney, “Man of a Thousand Faces.” What has happened to our monsters?

Look at Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, especially in Bride of Frankenstein. Chaney in, well, everything. Hollywood used to love its monsters. Look at your monsters. Look at Jason in Friday the 13th, or Cropsy in The Burning. There was a genuine pathos and humanity in those creatures. I have to agree. When I think back to when I was 8 in 1954 and I saw Creature From the Black Lagoon for the first time—that movie scared the living hell out of me. Now, that was an incredible monster, even today. That costume when you look at it was ingenious. But you also felt for the creature; you felt bad for him. You mentioned Karloff: Just look at Jack Pierce’s designs for that monster—incredible. Or look at Dick Smith’s Regan in The Exorcist or the original Alien. Those monsters meant something.

Or Howard Sherman as Bub in Romero’s Day of the Dead. Some of your finest work in that film and one of the most human and vibrant monsters in the history of horror.

Well, thank you, but to be honest, I’m afraid we just made him up to be a zombie, that’s all we did. We made him look the part. That’s it. Any humanity or sympathetic aspects came from Howard’s performance. In fact, Bub and David Emge as Stephen in Dawn of the Dead were some of the best zombies ever. And that’s what it was, that mixture of special effects and fantastic acting. Absolute magic.

You’re a staple of the convention circuit these days and are worshipped there accordingly. You have a distinct “look,” but do you often get recognized in the non-horror–centric world?

Oh yeah, I get recognized all over the world! Even in the deepest woods, in the middle of nowhere, while I’m hiking, it happens. Everywhere I go. But sometimes they think I’m someone else. Once I was mistaken for Jason Miller from The Exorcist. Another time someone actually thought I was Al Pacino. Now, that was amusing.

 

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