Forget about Michael Jackson and the Brat Pack. The man who really made 1980s pop culture awesome was Tom Savini. His gory effects kicked off the slasher movie craze and then he helped take the genre to the next level. The great makeup and effect artist reflects on his work and his place horror history throughout Jason Baker’s documentary profile, Smoke and Mirrors: The Tom Savini Story, which premieres today on Shudder.
Like the great George Romero (who gave him his first big break as a gore artist), Tom Savini was raised in Pittsburgh and he never left town for long. For years, it was home to his workshop and the Savini School of Special Effects is now based just outside of town. These days, Savini spends most of his time teaching and consulting, but he made his name doing makeup and effects for films like Friday the 13th I and IV, Creepshow 1 & 2, Dawn of the Dead (technically from 1978, but most of us saw in for the first time in the 80s), Day of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and a host of lesser known gorefests, as well as a few vintage Cannon action films. Yet, for many admirers, the revelation that Savini has also done so much work for the legit stage (a great deal of it in Pittsburgh) will be quite a surprise. In fact, his stage Dracula sounds like some of his best work.
As fans would hope, Savini is willing to revisit the making of many of his career highlights. He is also surprisingly candid when it comes to his personal life. Many fans might have heard how his service in Vietnam inspired some of gorier work, he also explains its impact on his personal relationships. Yet, Savini now seems remarkably grounded and at peace with himself. In fact, you have to give him credit for taking a lot of subsequent family drama in stride.
That is all admirable and great, but the whole point of a film like this is the greatest hits clips. Baker shows us plenty of Savini’s work but he and Mitch Cleaver sometimes edit them together too quickly, giving us rapid cuts that do not provide full context for the effect’s impact or shock value. Still, a lot of the footage definitely inspires waves of nostalgia. Perhaps the most surprising example is the video of one of Savini’s appearances on the old David Letterman show, which reminds us of when late night talk shows used to be funny and entertaining.
Baker also incorporates interview footage with a who’s-who of horror, including Tom Atkins, Doug Bradley, Alice Cooper, the late Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, Greg Nicotero, Tony Todd, and archival footage of Romero. Admittedly, this is a fannish movie, intended for fans. Arguably, Smoke and Mirrors would be a little lightweight for a theatrical release, but it is perfectly suited for Shudder’s programming. Recommended for anyone who knows the master’s work, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini is now streaming on Shudder.