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Celebrating Tom Savini, the unsung hero of splatter horror

As is the way with filmmaking, often the true heroes of cinema are forgotten behind the illustrious role of the director, wrongly given praise for almost every detail of a film’s production. Behind the goopy prosthetics of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street is the artist Kevin Yagher, whilst the terrifying animatronics of An American Werewolf in London was thanks to Rick Baker. Just one of the many unsung heroes of the horror genre is Tom Savini, a makeup artist that has worked alongside George Romero, Quentin Tarantino and even the heavy-metal band Slipknot. 

A prosthetic makeup artist, actor, stunt performer and film director, Tom Savini is a well-known face to horror aficionados who often flies under the radar of the regular moviegoer. Born in Pittsburgh in 1946, Savini attributed his early passion for makeup and prosthetics to actor Lon Chaney, Sr. and the film Man of a Thousand Faces. Experimenting with the art form from a young age, Savini tested his latest designs and creations on himself before convincing others to be his canvas. 

Attending Point Park University for three years, Savini later enlisted in the United States Army where he would fight in the Vietnam war and serve as a combat photographer. Using his brutal experience to inspire his later work, the artist told The Independent, “I saw some pretty horrible stuff, This is the reason why my work looks so visceral and authentic…I am the only special effects man to have seen the real thing!”.

A pioneer of prosthetic makeup, Savini’s signature stylistic choice favoured vivid realism and brutality, bringing detail to previously economical special effects. With help from Dick Smith in his early career, a special-effects artist who worked on The Exorcist, Savini was guided into the industry to work with fellow local filmmaker George A. Romero on Martin and Dawn of the Dead. Becoming iconic films in their own right, Savini used his time with Romero as a springboard to success, working on slasher classic Friday the 13th and Maniac where he would refine his identity for blood, gore and ingeniously designed prosthetic limbs. 

Donning the nickname ‘The Sultan of Splatter’ after working on The Burning and The Prowler, Savini thrived throughout the 1980s, working on Creepshow, Day of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. Savini became known as one of the most exciting experimenters in the industry, using fake blood as a form of magical escapism and fantasy as a passionate purveyor of horror joy. As he further explained to The Independent, “You are fooling people into believing in the illusion. I guess me and Romero wanted to be magicians of murder. If you see our names on the cinema billboard then you know you’re in for a really great magic show that will make you laugh but may also give you nightmares”. 

Tom Savini has since become an icon of the genre and a totem of slasher terror in a landscape of horror that has long since changed. Appearing in the Quentin Tarantino-written film From Dusk till Dawn as well the director’s 2012 film Django Unchained, Savini remains a beloved figure, even being recruited by Slipknot in 2019 to help with their mask designs for the album We Are Not Your Kind. 

Whilst Wes Craven, George Romero and Tobe Hooper are often granted credit for pioneering slasher horror, the role of Tom Savini as the joyously sadistic artist of horror and beating heart of the genre deserves far more credit.