Before “The Walking Dead” and the plethora of zombie shows on television today, there was Tom Savini.
The Carnegie Mellon University alumnus is an accomplished actor, stuntman and director, but he’s mostly made his mark in Hollywood with zombies and blood. Savini — the special effects genius behind such horror cult classics as “Friday the 13th,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “Creepshow” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” — has influenced a generation of filmmakers and film fanatics engrossed in fear and gore. In fact, they’ve bestowed upon him some descriptive titles, including “The Godfather of Gore” and “The Sultan of Splatter.”
“You can’t say ‘horror movies’ without thinking about Savini,” said rock musician superstar Alice Cooper, whose stage shows have included their share of guillotine executioners and fake blood.
CMU alumnus and legendary film director George Romero agrees. Romero, who launched the zombie genre with his 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead,” used Savini to do makeup on some of the most renowned horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Tom basically made it possible for me to make some of those films,” Romero said.
Savini began honing his makeup skills when he was 12. At a Pittsburgh neighborhood movie theater, he watched “Man of a Thousand Faces” about silent film actor and makeup pioneer Lon Chaney. Inspired, Savini went to work transforming himself into personas for friends and family. By the time he attended high school, his creativity had become apparent. During his sophomore year, he won an audition with Romero, the start to their lifelong working relationship.
“At my high school,” Savini said, “we dreamt of going to Carnegie Tech because our directors, our choreographers, our set builders were all from Carnegie Tech — the best theater school in the country.”
“At my high school, we dreamt of going to Carnegie Tech because our directors, our choreographers, our set builders were all from Carnegie Tech — the best theater school in the country.”
The dream had to wait. He served a tour in Vietnam, followed by working for various repertory theaters as an actor and makeup artist. In 1976, he finally got around to submitting his portfolio to CMU’s School of Drama, hoping against hope. “CMU was like Xanadu. It was the Lost Horizon. It was just unobtainable,” he said.
Not only was he accepted, he received a teaching fellowship. “That was mind-blowing to me,” he recalled, “to actually be in this place that we had all dreamed of going.”
He began teaching his peers combat, acrobatics and makeup, while learning the latest techniques from faculty members like vocal professor and fellow CMU alumnus David Smuckler and movement professor Jewel Walker.
Three semesters into his degree, Romero offered Savini the chance to oversee makeup for “Dawn of the Dead,” the second in what would become a seven-film zombie apocalypse franchise. Savini jumped at the chance, taking a leave of absence from his studies.
In that movie, he created zombie special effects while playing the role of a biker and performing most of the film’s stunts. Well-received and commercially successful, “Dawn of the Dead” catapulted his career as he would go on to work on the well-known “Friday the 13th” movie series. Next came a decades-long body of work that has forever impacted the horror genre. He would even go on to direct a remake of Romero’s classic, “Night of the Living Dead.”
Today, Savini passes on tricks of the trade through his own accredited special makeup effects program. Recalling his big break at CMU, he tells his students to take every opportunity to work on a film or play, no matter the role.
“The more you do, the more you get to do,” he said. “And always have a portfolio on hand, on a phone or a flash drive: “You are no longer you. You are your portfolio. If you want to improve yourself, you improve your portfolio.”
For fans still hungry for more about Savini, the documentary, “Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini,” delves into his professional and personal life, which have very different traits.
“When you're around Tom, it's hard to take anything too seriously,” says Jason Baker, director of the film. “He's a practical joker and just a fun, positive, energy to be around. … He also has a huge heart. So I hope that the audience will see that side of him.”
The film is slated for DVD and video-on-demand release later this year.
Although he’s about to turn 70, Savini still has a passion for bringing eccentric and ferocious roles to life, through makeup, stunts and acting. His latest part is Burt, a “legendary slayer of demons” for the El Rey Network’s TV series “From Dusk till Dawn.”
“I carry a bullwhip and sword,” he gleefully pointed out, “so it fulfills my childhood dreams of being a swashbuckler.”