Posted: 01/14/03

An Interview with
Tom Savini

by Gary Schultz


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It's January 8, 2004. The New Year has just begun and apparently it's time for my first interview of the year with none other than special FX legend and horror icon Tom Savini. He's an actor, author, teacher, special FX wizard and all around badass. This is the guy responsible for the make up work in such horror classics as Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead & Creepshow. I'm currently in my office spacing out starring at the poster for the Dawn of the Dead remake somebody has emailed me. The poster actually looks pretty cool. I break trance and turn to my clock, it's now become time. See Tom recently acted in a movie called Vicious, which is being released by MTI Home Video. I call Tom up on his cell phone. He currently is exiting a McDonald's on his way from Pennsylvania to New York for the Fangoria Convention. This is my interview. Now let's make a bloody mess of it.

Gary: Tom, it is a great privilege to speak with you today. You are having a massive and lengthy career; at least that's how it seems. You've been known for being a special FX master, a photographer, an actor and a horror icon. You've written several books, opened a school and have appeared on a countless number of documentaries and television shows. Recently you starred in a little horror film released by MTI home video called Vicious can you tell us a little about the film and your role in it?

Tom: Vicious was directed by a good friend of mine named Matt Green who now teaches at my school. Matt directed one of the last two films I was in. I went down to the shoot and did my Rambo thing for him with the black outfit and pony tail and kicking ass in the jungle and keeping this monster fed by recruiting hikers and you know? Then I end up getting mine in the end. I also consulted on the FX as well. That's what I've been doing. I just go from movie to movie and consult with my FX team this way they get to use my name twice on the film.

Gary: In the special FX world you are known as the 'Splatter King'. Do you think this nickname was earned fairly? Are you in fact the Splatter King?

Tom: Well you know I'm the Wizard of Gore, the King of Splatter. You know my name got out there and when you get into the business that is what you try to do. You try to get your name out there. You know I took a super low fee to do the first Friday the 13th movie, not knowing that Jason was gonna become a horror icon. That first movie we shot for something like three hundred and fifty thousand dollars and it made like seventy two million. I made pennies on that show. I just wanted to get my name out. You know it was after Dawn of the Dead and it was those two films together that created my career. If it created me as the King of Splatter, great. I moved on to other things. I moved on to create characters and creatures and stuff. But you know your always type cast at what you are popular at. My popularity was my gore stuff. You know I was a combat photographer in Vietnam. So I saw horrible shit. To me if the fake stuff didn't give me the same feeling I got when I saw the real it wasn't good enough. I think that's where my reputation came from. My gore was very realistic.

Gary: It seems that in recent years you've turned to more acting and directing than special FX work. Any reason for this slight change in career direction?

Tom: Even as kid I just always wanted to be an actor. I mean make up is my all time love. Sometimes a year or two would go by and the make up kit would be up in the attic but it would call me. I'd pull it back out. I thought doing special make up FX would get my foot in the door to be an actor. You know I always try to play a part in the movies I do FX on. And that just lead to more acting roles and now it's just acting. I turn over all the FX jobs to my school, unless it's a big budget thing that I really want to do FX wise. Mainly it's low budget stuff. I turn it over to my lead instructor at school and he'll pick the students and they'll go off and they do the film, you know I mean with my consultation and expertise. But that's good for the school because my school is the only school where students get to work on movies while they are there.

Gary: Which is experience is pretty much the best experience you can offer a student.

Tom: Exactly, plus when the teacher throws the movie out at them they get to bid on the job which is what they'll have to do in the real world anyway, is bid on jobs.

Gary: I know it was over a decade ago but you got the privilege and challenge of remaking the greatest American horror film ever made. Could you briefly sum up what the experience of remaking Night of the Living Dead was like?

Tom: It was the worst nightmare of my life. No, I still have nightmares of being on the set directing that movie. It all started before the movie. It was a plethora of why and how dare you?! I'm getting the same slack now because I'm in the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Listen the thing that kept me going on the Night of the Living Dead set was that George asked me to do the FX on the original film back in 1968. But I was in Vietnam when he shot that. You know I had enlisted in the army and they called me in. So what kept me going on the set was that I realized that I didn't get to do the first movie and now here I am directing the remake. My problem with the remake and the reason I call it a nightmare is because you know I had lots of ideas. I had some eight hundred-story boards and the whole movie was actually shot on paper. See George Romero wasn't there. George was off in Florida writing the Dark Half. I got stuck with these two idiot producers that didn't know anything and their careers prove it and you know I didn't want to make their bad movie for them. You know my hands were just slapped all over the place I couldn't do a lot of stuff. The movie is about forty percent of what I intended. It would be a much better movie if I had got to put in all the stuff I really wanted to do. Then the MPAA hit us hard. You know with my name on it and George Romero they were waiting for us. And they made us cut some more stuff so it's kind of a sterile film with mine and George's name on it and that's not what the fans expected.

Gary: Well Tom I'll tell you one thing I really liked about the remake is especially with the Barbara character it's very obvious that you tried to make her a much stronger character than in original and it think that really shined through. I also think you did a great job showing inhumanities of the people torturing the zombies at the end of the film.

Tom: You got a bit of a sequel at the end of the remake. Well in the original film Barbara is just there for most of the film. She just gets pulled away and into a zombie mob. We don't see what actually happens to her. I mentioned to George why doesn't she just come back and help these people out and he wrote it in.

Gary: It's assumed that since you worked with George Romero so many times that you guys are at least pretty good friends. I've read that George has a script ready for the next dead movie and that he's just looking for a budget of around nine million. If we get to see another Romero dead film will you be involved? If so in what capacity? 

Tom: Well I mean he and I talk about it all the time. He and I just did the audio commentary for the new Anchor Bay release of Dawn of the Dead and you know we talked about his fourth movie and you know with Twentieth Century Fox in there it's gonna be more than a nine million dollar picture. It's gonna be a big budget film. And I told him, and this may sound strange coming from me but we need to do some CGI with these zombies. Not all of them of course but I mean there is only so much you can do with a face and hands and a costume. You know with CGI you can have holes through them, half the brain intact. Something like what they did in A.I. with some of the great CGI FX. So yeah we'd have some CGI horribly mutilated, missing legs and part zombies and the rest make up. My school is the assembly line waiting to go with these zombies. I mean every student there wants to be a zombie. You know when you're born in Pittsburgh the thing you want to be when you grow up is a zombie in one of the Romero films. So I'm pretty sure I'll be involved at least as an actor.

Gary: What are your feelings on the Dawn of the Dead remake? I've seen the trailer and it actually looks pretty good but for some reason maybe because it's evil, I don't want to see this film remade. In many a fan's opinion it's perfect the way it is. At least when Night of the Living Dead was remade it was by someone associated with the original filmmaker and it was updated in many positive ways. What's the deal with remakes just for the sake of remakes? Are all the ideas in Hollywood dead?

Tom: I know when you think of a zombie movie you think of the classic one and that is...Dawn of the Dead. That is the classic zombie movie.

Gary: What was your part in the remake?

Tom: Well I only spent a day on the film and I heard all kinds of rumors that it wasn't taking place in a mall, that the guy that wrote it wrote the Scooby Doo movie. But when I got there the director was a big fan of George Romero's and to him the remake was a homage to the original film. And his zombies are not CGI. They had about forty people out there on crew and each zombie was an elaborate make up. I don't know, we won't know until we see it. But it seems they're off to a good start. I'm the sheriff on the television who's leading a mob against zombies. They watch me on the television while they're in the mall.

Gary: Sounds like a good guy version of your biker character in the original.

Tom: Yeah kind of.

Gary: You have opened the Savini School of make up FX set up at the Douglas Education Center in Pennsylvania? What were your reasons behind founding this school and how does the program work?

Tom: Well there were people after me to open up the school for years. And the Douglas Education Center was the first place to roll the dice and do it. They got my book certified and set up a facility. They came through. See a big part of it was when I was growing up and wanting to learn about make up FX there was no place you could go. All the artists were very secretive and wouldn't share any of their secrets except for Dick Smith. Dick Smith is the greatest make up artist alive. And you called him up and he'd tell you how to do anything. And then he'd Xerox instructions, this is back then ship it off to you. And that impressed the hell out of me. And his point was it keeps make up FX state of the art. A high art form. When he shares his secrets people give them back to him and sometimes make improvements. In the interest of that I wrote my two books and then the school was just a natural evolution of that.

Gary: How does the program work? If a student is planning to come to your school how does it work?

Tom: You don't need any preparation what so ever. Students show up not ever having sketched or sculpted or anything. Two weeks later they've given birth to this incredible sculpture and it propels them into wanting to do more. And people are coming form all over the country and they want to come from all over the world. We are getting our student visa act together. It's difficult if you are coming from over seas. But you know ours is taking the number one spot in attendance. It's a fifteen-month program with a degree involved. We're not kidding around here.

Gary: That's pretty hardcore to earn a degree in fifteen months.

Tom: And also if anybody just wants to show up. It's called shadowing. You can call up anytime and make an appointment. Come and hang out with a student and see what their day is like. I mean they're having blast you know.

Gary: How do you feel the CGI world has affected old school make up FX. I mean straight make up will probably always have some place in filmmaking. But what do you think will happen to old school blood and guts. It seems far too often that a director's answer is to CGI everything when most of the time it's cheaper and looks better to do it for real. I'm saying that a low budget prosthetic is still better than low budget CGI. What do you think about that?

Tom: Well low budget CGI...I mean I love CGI if it's good but if it's crappy it takes you out of the movie. We are training people to accept CGI. The new generation are getting used to it. Before you could see it in front of you and now you have to pretend it's there because it'll be there in postproduction. I think CGI makes make up FX better. I mean the remake of The Mummy you could not get that depth of damage with just make up FX.  I mean they will always hire make up people. I mean its artists and sculptors that make all those creatures. It's the computer guys that recreate them. So I mean look at Arnold at the end of Terminator 3 when he has half a head gone you could never do that with make up FX. You could use a dummy or a fake head but I mean no matter who you are if you look at a fake head for longer than three seconds you know it's fake. Arnold in the original Terminator well that head was definitely fake because you got to stare right at it for more than three seconds. With CGI it's the real person and you can make stuff like half a head gone. In my FX I always try to keep the real person as much as possible. You know if it's CGI where they use the real person as much as possible then I'm all for it.

Gary: You've got several upcoming projects. What are you currently working on?

Tom: Well I'm directing a pilot for a TV series called Chill Factor it's a vampire story. I'm playing a mafia guy in this movie in South Carolina coming up in March. I'm playing a scientist out in L.A. in February...you know it's just a bunch of acting gigs. And you know also pushing my own scripts to direct.

Gary: So as an actor who would you love to work with but haven't and if you say Bruce Campbell you're the man.

Tom: Well, now I almost worked with Bruce Campbell. We wanted him to star in the Vampirex movie I was working on but that fell through when the producer died. But I have worked with Bruce on movie called Demolitionist. And I know Sam Raimi. I've been on the set of the Evil Dead movies. But who would I want to work with I'd say Cameron Diaz, ummm....and the girl from Underworld.

Gary: Kate Beckinsale?

Tom: Kate Beckinsale! Yeah, what would I have to do to get Kate Beckinsale? Well that's the women, as far as the guys I'd love to work with Tommy Lee Jones and guys like that.

Gary: What is something that people don't know about Tom Savini that they wouldn't expect that you would care to share.

Tom: Well let's see I love to paint flowers and I love, Love Stories and I'm not a gore monger just because...that's my job. You know I'm supposed to create what's in the script realistically and sometimes it's a gore fest.

Gary: So Tom is a sensitive man?

Tom: Yes.

Gary: What advice can you give to aspiring horror filmmakers of tomorrow?

Tom: Go out with your video camera and go make some damn movies immediately.

Gary: That's good advice. Last question Tom. You guest starred on the greatest television show eve The Simpson's. Rumors have it that you engaged in sexual relations with Mrs. Krabappel, Bart's fourth grade teacher. Is there any truth to this statement?

Tom: Ummm...those rumors are false. I'm always attributed to my sex machine character in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Gary: Well, Tom it's been a pleasure talking with you. Good luck and I hope your career continues to flourish.

Gary Schultz is an indie filmmaker from Chicago. Some people would say he watches too many horror movies. But then again some people are addicted to processed cheese products.. You can reach him at highertribe@yahoo.com.

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