Despite having missed out on the opportunity of working on George A. Romero’s seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead whilst serving in Vietnam, Tom Savini would become a major star within the horror genre for his work on the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, almost a decade later. Following his groundbreaking special effects on Friday the 13th, which was released in the summer of 1980 and would ultimately be responsible for the slasher boom, Savini became one of the most in demand make-up artists in the industry, leading to his memorable work on a host of splatter classics that would include Maniac, The Prowler and Creepshow.
In the mid-1980s, Savini would return to the world of both zombies and slashers with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Day of the Dead, as well as guest starring as the Creep in Creepshow 2. As the decade came to an end, Savini began to distance himself from his gruesome roots by directing a remake of Night of the Living Dead, before turning to acting with roles in Innocent Blood and From Dusk Till Dawn. More recently, Savini has enjoyed cameos in Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s Land of the Dead and the zombie flick Planet Terror.
Tom Savini discusses his contributions to the Friday the 13th franchise.
How were you approached about working on Friday the 13th? What was it about the project that was so appealing to you?
I guess Sean Cunningham had seen Dawn of the Dead and wanted the same guy on his film that did that, ya know? Appealing ashmealing… it was a job. It was another opportunity to kill people in creative ways. That’s what I did back then.
Were the murders described explicitly in the script or were you given full rein over how you could kill each character off?
I think the script described some of the killings, and when you are in a creative situation and brainstorming stuff, it’s hard to remember who came up with what. But my memory is that we embellished and improved everything in the script, and I actually came up with Jason coming out of the water at the end in a dream sequence.
Which was your favourite gag in the movie?
In retrospect it is probably Kevin Bacon’s death. Much has been made of it, but I liked the axe in the face, and cutting little Robbie Morgan’s throat in the beginning. Sean said, “How long will it take? We are losing the light.” I said a half hour. I threw Robbie on my motorcycle and drove her back to the little makeshift studio we had at the boy scout camp, and I delivered her back to the set in a half hour. Sean was amazed that I did what I said.
What was your opinion the movie when you first saw it, and how do you feel about it all these years later?
I was very proud of that movie as it was not a bunch of grey zombies walking around but a true test of what make-up effects are supposed to be. I think it still stands up, as those effects happened right in front of you as if you were there and not some CGI stuff.
You declined the chance to return for Part 2 in favour of working on The Burning. Do you still feel that was the right decision?
Yeah, I turned down Part 2 ’cause they had Jason running around and it didn’t make sense to me. He was a kid that drowned in the first movie and the mother was the killer. What… he survived and nobody knew… even his mother? And what… he lived by the lake for thirty-five years eating crawfish or something… and nobody saw him… really? But don’t forget, when the series was floundering and part four, The Final Chapter, was made, they hired me to kill him. I stopped watching them after Part V, where the fucking ashtray was Jason… as his spirit took over things.
The most impressive death in The Final Chapter was Jason’s. Was it a difficult gag to design and how long did it take?
Jason’s death evolved when one of my crew guys held up the Dawn of the Dead machete to his head and that gave me the idea of hitting Jason in the head with a machete, but then making him slide down the blade. They didn’t have an ending to the film until I showed up, replacing Greg Cannom, and we came up with all sorts of things besides his death.
Having worked on so many slashers, would you say you enjoy watching those kind of movies?
I don’t enjoy watching that stuff as I did back then. Back then movies like mine where like going to see an exhibit from your favorite effects artist. Today, it’s all copying what we did under the guise of torture porno. I’m not into such shit, and don’t care for the people who are.
Having returned once to kill Jason, have you ever or would you ever contemplate returning to the series again, especially as the franchise is now being remade? What new ideas do you think you could bring to the character?
I would return to the genre. I would come out of make-up effects retirement to do a Friday the 13th the way it should be. But as the director, overseeing and consulting with an effects crew like KNB. I’ve been pursuing an acting and directing career and it’s working and I’m not really retired from anything, but I would make a big deal out of doing a Friday the 13th.