You might recognize Tom Savini from his roles in films such as “Django Unchained” and “Machete” or most memorably in the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration “From Dusk till Dawn” (1996), in which Savini was nothing short of fantastic as “Sex Machine,” a biker with a codpiece revolver who is eventually transformed into a vampire and then a biped rat and I’d like to see Timothee Chalamet pull off THAT role, people.
As we learn in the breezy and comprehensive and deliberately drive-in style documentary “Smoke and Mirrors,” Savini’s 40-year run as a character actor specializing in horror roles and action movies is just the tip of the goatee, as the 74-year-old hyphenate is also a stunt man and a director — and a legendary makeup and special effects pioneer known for his work on a number of films from George A. Romero, as well as slasher movies such as “Maniac,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” and the original “Friday the 13th.”
Sure to delight fans of gore, “Smoke & Mirrors” feature home movie footage of Savini’s earliest forays into filmmaker as a kid in Pittsburgh; a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes footage and movie and TV clips; testimonials from colleagues including Danny McBride, Danny Trejo and Alice Cooper, and interviews with Savini, who comes across as sweet and likable and self-deprecating as he delights in speaking about his passion for creating some of the most indelible horror images of all time.
Director Jason Baker employs a number of B-movie and old-school techniques to tell Savini’s story, including an introduction courtesy of a guy who looks like he’s hosting a 1950s TV show about horror movies, graphic-novel style animation and title cards straight out of a silent movie. It’s a bit cheesy at times, but it’s kinda cool and it works, given the subject, who would be the first to tell he has made his mark in a drive-in movie world.
Savini walks the streets of his beloved Pittsburgh (and at one point is filmed in a cemetery, because why not) and tells us about his childhood and how he loved the Sunday comics and going to the movies for 25 cents a pop. “I loved Westerns but I mainly loved horror movies,” he recalls, with the Lon Chaney biopic “Man of a Thousand Faces” a particular influence. “[That movie] showed me that somebody creates the monsters,” says Savini. “From that day on, I was reading about makeup.”
After enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving in Vietnam as a combat photographer, where he saw real-life horrors more nightmarish than anything he’d eventually create, Savini did makeup and acting in regional theater, started working makeup on small indie horror films with titles such as “DeathDream” and “Deranged,” got a full scholarship at Carnegie-Mellon and got his first big break working with George A. Romero on “Martin” (1977). Shortly thereafter, Savini received a telegram from Romero that said, “START THINKING OF WAYS TO KILL PEOPLE,” as Romero wanted Savini onboard for “Dawn of the Dead.”
The rest is horror movie history, as Savini embarked on a career in stunts, makeup, acting, directing, etc., that continues to thrive to this day. “Smoke & Mirrors” is a bloody good tribute to a bloody unique creative force.