Day of the Dead Ghoulmaster Tom Savini Strives to Be More Than the Sum of His Parts
Oh boy, Tom Savini is having a good time. He's standing off in the corner of some basement in New York City, the shadows creeping up eerily behind him. He's got a few tools of his trade draped around his neck—a couple of half-eaten arms, a severed head or two, and one really disgusting small, half-rotted corpse.
A photographer is clicking away.
"But you look so normal,' " says the photographer.
Tom bites one of the arms.
"That's pretty disgusting," says the photographer.
Tom winks at a severed head.
"That's pretty disgusting, too," says the photographer.
Tom rolls his eyes, monsterlike.
"Oh, my God," says the photographer, egging him on.
Tom smiles contentedly.
Tom Savini, 38, loves his work. He is a special-effects makeup artist. He's known as the Splatter King, and he's in town to promote his latest movie, the George Romero-directed horror flick Day of the Dead, the third in the trilogy that includes Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979). Romero, the jolly creator of all this gore, vows that this is the last one, but allows that if there is a fourth, it will be called Brunch of the Dead. Savini has worked with Romero on Dawn and Day, as well as Creepshow and Martin, a friendly little movie about a vampire. He first met Romero, his mentor, way back in 1962, when Tom, then a high school sophomore in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., tried to get a job on a Romero movie that never got made. A few years later, after a stint as a combat photographer in Vietnam and a brief stab at college, Savini again applied for an acting job, in Martin. He was hired for a small role, but also displayed a special knack for stunts, makeup and imaginative mayhem. A few months later, when Romero began working on Dawn of the Dead, he sent Savini a telegram that read, "Start thinking of ways to kill people." "I knew I had the job," says Savini, who has since provided gory effects for such films as Friday the 13th and Maniac. Says Tom, "I have the urge to scare."
The urge shows up in his private life. His Pittsburgh bedroom is decked out with grotesque masks, and he hangs his clothes on a skeleton. His wife of a year, Nancy Hare, was "a little weirded out at first," says Savini. Once he put a Frankenstein head in their bed. When she came in and pulled the covers back, Tom jumped out of a closet and screamed. "I got her twice," he chuckles. Says Nancy, 30, "When I met Tom it was love at first bite."
Savini is also fond of making fake heads of friends. In Day of the Dead, one of the most gruesome effects involves a severed head. The face resembles that of Greg Nicotero, Savini's right-hand man. "Tom let me take the head home for Thanksgiving," says Nicotero. "I hid it behind the couch and called my mother in. 'Come look at this,' I said. She wouldn't talk to me for the rest of the day. Finally she said, 'Look at what hanging around Savini has done to you!' "
As demented as he seems, Tom is in heavy demand both as a makeup artist and increasingly as a director. He has just completed filming his second segment of the television series Tales From the Darkside and is mulling other offers. For now he's looking forward to a little time off. "I haven't had a good Halloween in years," says Savini. "I always seem to be working on someone else's project. I'd just like to go home to Pittsburgh, dress somebody up as a gorilla and wrestle with him in front of the neighborhood kids." Ah, for life's simple pleasures.
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