Before I knew who he was, I sat near him at the Bloomfield Crazy Mocha as he loudly described a movie he jokingly called "Night of the Fucking Dead." I later realized who he was and was surprised at my ignorance, considering my self-identification as a creepy horror hound who, at that time, had watched at least three movies he worked on — Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, and From Dusk Till Dawn (the latter is especially egregious considering that Savini played Sex Machine, a character with a very memorable codpiece).
I now know more than I ever wanted to know about the weird guy in Crazy Mocha thanks to Smoke and Mirrors, a documentary on the Shudder streaming service touted as the definitive story of the man whose many creations terrorized generations of moviegoers. Directed by filmmaker and special effects artist Jason Baker, the film follows its subject’s story from his beginnings as the child of Italian immigrants to becoming a master of horror makeup and special effects.
The film relies heavily on interviews with Savini, whose origins play out like a Pittsburgh fairytale, complete with a huge, colorful family (he grew up with five older siblings), and steelworker father. Using the standard archival photos and grainy 8mm home-movie footage, we’re treated to images of a young Savini as he describes how he frequented the neighborhood theater to watch movies, one of which, the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, inspired him to make his own monster masks and horror makeup. It’s these moments where viewers get to see Savini before he became the macho, leather-clad biker type fans know today, as they reveal a nerdy drama kid self-conscious about his big nose. (I’m going to set my professionalism aside for a moment to point out that if these segments demonstrate anything, it’s that Savini was distractingly, irrefutably attractive. He was, as the kids say, an absolute snack.)
More fascinating are the moments that delve into Savini’s process, much of which is illustrated through time-lapse videos of him applying prosthetics to an actor, or in clip after clip of all the exploding heads, ripped flesh, and other stylized, blood-soaked gore he and his team brought to the screen. Horror fans are also treated to interviews with on- and off-screen personalities happy to sing Savini’s praises, including late collaborator George A. Romero, director Robert Rodriguez, and former co-stars like Danny Trejo and Fred Williamson, who notably calls Savini “one strange dude.”
Besides complementing works like Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th, a nearly seven-hour-long documentary that includes some great behind-the-scenes commentary from Savini, Smoke and Mirrors goes to great lengths to depict its subject as a devoted Pittsburgher, father, grandfather, husband, and cat-dad to two felines. While he may have stepped away from show business for the most part, there’s no denying his continued influence on future filmmakers, whether it’s through his large body of work or through his makeup special effects school.
Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini is now streaming on Shudder.