Tom Savini’s first makeup effects job, at the recommendation of George Romero, was Deathdream (a.k.a. Dead of Night), a brilliant 1972 film about a G.I. in Vietnam who dies in the war but returns to life—and comes home—as a vampire. After that, Savini did makeup for 1974’s Deranged (written by Alan Ormsby, who also wrote Deathdream), loosely based on the grisly career of Ed Gein. Martin (1976), another outstanding vampire film (kind of) written and directed by Romero, was next. Savini, already a theater veteran, wanted to play the lead. He did makeup and stunts instead.
After Martin, Savini returned to the theater, taking the part of King Philip in a production of The Lion in Winter. When that wrapped, Romero called him in to do effects for Dawn of the Dead (1978), the greatest zombie movie ever made, and easily in the all-time horror top 10. On to Friday the 13th (1980), whose realistic effects sent the American slasher film into the mainstream. (Bob Clark, who directed Deathdream, also directed the first true American slasher: 1974’s underrated Black Christmas. Clark is best know today as the director of A Christmas Story.)
No one in the makeup effects business did more to define the modern horror genre than Savini, not even Rick Baker or Stan Winston. His experience as a combat photographer in Vietnam gave him a unique (and terrible, I would think) insight into death.
Not at all the grisly brooder or the “deranged butcher” people expect, Savini emanates an easygoing affability in interviews. It’s clear that he loves life, and he’s giddily dedicated to his craft. All of that comes through when FF asks him if he had fun on Friday the 13th:
Oh, it was one of the greatest times I’ve ever had. The weeks in the Poconos, riding around without a helmet, taking my time and doing really elaborate things, and having a fortune to spend. Toward the end, I received a Dear John phone call from my girlfriend, which at the time seemed to destroy the whole experience. But as I look back on it, it didn’t at all. I just had a terrific time.
Despite his genius for illusion, Savini saw himself as an actor first. Romero finally gave him his chance in Knightriders (1981), a misunderstood movie about a jousting motorcycle troupe that’s also an elegy on the decline of the ’60s counterculture. Savini plays one of the leads, opposite a 30-year-old Ed Harris, and more than holds his own.
(The first and second installments of Fantastic Films #20 are here and here, respectively.)