With the golden age of practical movie effects sadly long behind us, there are only a handful of effects make-up geniuses that count as legends, and very few of them are like Tom Savini. Notorious as a major part of the films of George A. Romero as well as a king of splatter cinema in his own right, the story of Savini is ready to be told. And it’s told righteously, in the documentary Smoke and Mirrors.
The film posits Savini as not just an effects master but also an actor, a magician, and a teacher. Growing up in Pittsburgh with five siblings, the film looks at each of them and how they influenced their little brother, as well as tales of his mother letting him sneak down after his father had put him to bed so he could watch horror movies on the black and white TV, and taking him to Godzilla movies and Universal monster movies, something that he would eventually bring full circle so he could scare her. Obsessed with creatures, it was the 1957 film Man of a Thousand Faces, which told the story of legendary makeup man Lon Chaney, that showed Savini that there were people who made these fantastical monsters.
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From there, Savini became the local neighbourhood monster guy and would pore over the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland with his friends before making them up, and as a teenager, he got to do this as a job of sorts with a local magician troupe. Eventually, he joined the army to support his pregnant wife and was sent to Vietnam, where he was exposed first-hand to the real horrors humanity is capable of. After being a guardsman he became a war photographer, but in an amusing anecdote credits a duck with saving his life after he mistook one for a Vietcong platoon, which had him taken off guard duty.
His film work began when he happened to run into writer Alan Ormsby in a bar – the writer was working on Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) – and after Savini showed him his portfolio, invited him to work on 1974’s Deathdream as his debut. From there he worked on Ormsby’s Ed Gein-inspired flick Deranged before meeting Romero, who recruited him to work on 1977’s Martin and the following year’s Dawn of the Dead, and from there the legend was born.
Smoke and Mirrors looks at Savini’s life chronologically, from his early life in Pittsburgh and onwards, and how he always had support from his parents right up to his father’s death, which is covered in a fair amount of detail as an emotionally powerful moment, and how he had physical memories of him because he used to videotape him with a camera. There is a lot of footage from behind the scenes of various films, including some great shots of actor Ted White being made up as Jason Voorhees for the final reveal in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and the subsequent machete slide into his skull, which is great. We also see Savini appearing several times on the David Letterman show, remarking that he was surprised that he was on there, and not Rick Baker or Rob Bottin.
The film also covers Savini’s directorial career, which began with a remake of Night of the Living Dead, and the issues he had with that. He was going through a divorce at the time and the US MPAA (the equivalent of our BBFC) made him cut a lot of significant effects makeup, and he was also unable to direct the ending he wanted to. It also talks of his love of theatre as an actor, appearing in several plays and also using his effects on things like Dracula and making the lead actor turn into a bat on-stage, and also how he was asked to teach acting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
A great section talks about Savini’s role as the character Sex Machine in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), showing how that character was originally written for Fred Williamson until Savini read the script and decided he wanted to play it. Savini got a leather jacket and made an audition tape, which convinced Rodriguez and writer/producer Quentin Tarantino that the roles should be switched. We’re also treated to a cool short deleted scene of Sex Machine and Kate (Juliette Lewis) where they introduce themselves to each other.
Smoke and Mirrors then comes together to talk about the culmination of Savini’s film and theatre work: Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program, which is a degree at the Douglas Education Center in Monesson, Pennsylvania, part of the Greater Pittsburgh Region that shows the importance Savini places on his home city and the loyalty he has. The program, which awards the Associate in Specialised Business degree, was started by Savini twenty-one years ago, and its graduates have gone on to work on projects such as The Mandalorian, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and Avengers: Infinity War, with the clips shown of students and teachers making it clear how important it is to them and Savini himself. The program is probably his biggest success story, and as the film says throughout, it shows that Savini is just a thoroughly nice guy.
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Of course, a ton of people appear to show their gratitude to Savini and show just how important he has been as a friend, colleague, or mentor. The list includes Tom Atkins, Alice Cooper, Corey Feldman, Greg Nicotero, Danny McBride, and Robert Rodriguez to name but a few. It also features Hellraiser actor Doug Bradley, aka Pinhead, in a cute intro that’s a nod to the “we warned you” opening of James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein.
That Smoke and Mirrors tells the story of Tom Savini is a kind of miracle in itself. It seems a rarity that we get these kinds of films based on creators like Savini outside of short featurettes, and the fact it was made in 2015 perhaps tells you a story itself about how difficult getting these things out is. Nevertheless, it’s a great piece about a great artist who thoroughly deserves this kind of recognition.
Smoke and Mirrors is out now on digital in the US from Wild Eye Releasing.