From a horde of zombie mall walkers to a young Jason Voorhees to the vengeful camp caretaker Cropsy and beyond, makeup effects master Tom Savini has for decades crafted iconic horror movie characters. The wizard of practical gore is also known for his work in front of the camera as biker Blades from 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and the whip-cracking Sex Machine in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, but hardcore horror hounds also know the versatile artist from his time spent in the director’s chair on 1990’s Night of the Living Dead.
Ahead of his appearance at the Horror-Rama convention in Toronto, we caught up with Savini to reflect on his reimagining of George A. Romero’s classic zombie film:
George A. Romero wrote the script for 1990’s Night of the Living Dead, but I understand he gave you free reign to make changes as you saw fit. Were there any big creative adjustments that you made when filming commenced?
“I had seen Sigourney Weaver as this great woman hero in Alien and I wanted Barbara to become a woman action hero, too. So that’s when George wrote in the part about her leaving the house, getting dressed in the combat uniform and kicking ass.”
What was it like working with Patricia Tallman to make Barbara a capable, independent survivor?
“I went to college with Patti, and the first time I saw her she was kicking the shit out of her boyfriend in a fight class. The person she becomes in the movie is who she really is. She’s a badass stuntwoman. She did stunts for Star Trek: The Next Generation, doubling as Dr. Beverly Crusher in many scenes. When she was pregnant she did some stunts, including falling off the pirate ship in Star Trek Generations, so she’s always been a kick-ass person and it shows in the film. It shows that we’re friends and I’m taking advantage of her machoness.”
After Duane Jones’ masterful performance in the original Night of the Living Dead, the character of Ben was a big one to fill, but I understand Tony Todd came into the audition and nailed it. Can you talk about casting the now-iconic Tony?
“Laurence Fishburne and Eriq La Salle read for me, but when Tony Todd came in to audition, I handed him the script, and he walked outside for five minutes and then came back in without the script. He knew all the dialogue and produced tears. I closed the book right then and there and said, ‘This is Ben.’”
The farmhouse that the original Night of the Living Dead was filmed in was torn down after shooting wrapped, but the farmhouse you shot your Night in is still standing in Washington, PA, and I understand you considered buying it at one point?
“Yeah, it was for sale while we were shooting and they wanted $125,000 for it, but it included 80 acres, and the cemetery was up on the hill away from the house, and it had that big shed… I didn’t buy it, but somebody did. People still go there, knock on the door and look around, because it’s the Night of the Living Dead house.”
The MPAA made you edit out quite a bit of gore, particularly with the gunshot exit wounds, but if the same movie was made today that wouldn’t be an issue. What are your thoughts on the footage you had to cut in the editing room?
“They never even put it in. There’s a 25-minute documentary on the DVD of my Night of the Living Dead and it shows that footage—mainly exit wounds on people getting shot in the head. With my name and George’s on the movie, audiences expected a gore-fest, but it’s actually kind of sterile as far as the blood and gore.
I wasn’t involved in the initial editing. Columbia bought the picture from 21st Century while we were shooting it, which reduced our post-production time. Instead of ten weeks of post-production, we had about four weeks to rush the film out for a Halloween release. They took the film out to California and whenever the MPAA said ‘cut something,’ they did it. I would have argued, I would have changed the color of the blood, done something to keep more footage in there, but it didn’t happen that way.”
A personal favorite zombie of mine is the “fresh” autopsy zombie with the suit split down the back…
“They almost didn’t let me shoot that. They said we were running out of time, but I insisted that we had to get that guy in. That actor who played that zombie with the suit split up the back [Tim Carrier], he was the instructor that we brought in to teach our zombies how to move, but it became ridiculous because everyone was doing such over-the-top, outlandish stuff, we simply said, ‘Just walk slow.’”
Each of Romero’s zombie films are viewed as reflections/dissections of the culture of their time period, and some have said that 1990’s Night of the Living Dead has an AIDS subtext. Can you share your thoughts on this link?
“It’s the same link that George Romero had on the first movie. Not that it was AIDS, but it was communism and alienation. There’s a documentary called American Nightmare, and it talks about what was going on in the world when some of your favorite horror movies were being made and it’s amazing, especially in George Romero’s films, how much in the film reflects what was going on in the world. George didn’t have that in mind when he made it [1990’s Night of the Living Dead]. It’s something that happens after the movie is made. The audience attributes a film to somebody’s style or to something that’s going on, to some meaning. People do that. When we’re making the film, we’re not thinking about that stuff.”
Looking back, is there a favorite moment or a particular challenge you had while making Night of the Living Dead?
“Time. We just didn’t have enough time. If you look at my book, Grande Illusions, I put the storyboards in there of all the stuff that we didn’t get to do because of not having enough time.
Night of the Living Dead was the most horrible experience of my life. I couldn’t wait to go home in the morning. I just didn’t want to be there because they kept slapping my hands: ‘You’re not allowed to do this. You’re not allowed to do that.’ And my wife divorced me three weeks into shooting, so I was afraid of losing my daughter. There was a lot of turmoil. We’re lucky that we got what we did on the screen.”
No matter what your stance is on 1990’s Night of the Living Dead, the film is a memorable living dead entry that continues to be discussed 24 years after its initial release, while its director, Tom Savini, has endured the past quarter of a century with an impressive, multifaceted career that is still going strong today.
You can meet the legendary actor/director/special effects guru just after Halloween, as Tom Savini will be a featured guest at the first annual Horror-Rama in Toronto along with Barbara Steele, Lisa Marie, Michael Slade, Nivek Ogre, and many more. Sponsored by Fangoria and Suspect, Horror-Rama takes place on November 1st and 2nd at 99 Sudbury. For more details, visit: