[Review] 'Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini' Is A Heartwarming Insight Into the Master of Horror
Dawn of the Dead. Friday the 13th. Creepshow. From Dusk Till Dawn. The Night of the Living Dead remake. What do they all have in common? They all feature the incredible work of horror maestro, Tom Savini, aka, one of the greatest talents to ever contribute to the genre…
…Ever since I first laid eyes on Kevin Bacon getting his throat punctured by a spear like a Capri Sun pouch, I’ve been a fan of Mr. Savini’s special effects work. But the man is more than the guy who revolutionized special effects in horror. He’s also an actor, a stunt coordinator, a director, and more than anything, a family man. Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini, is, as the title implies, a comprehensive documentary from director Jason Baker that presents Savini as not just that guy who has made a living scaring the crap out of you, but a man who is much different than you might think underneath the mask.
Brilliantly opening like some kind of satanic version of the Twilight Zone, promising a presentation of horror, life, and magic galore, Smoke and Mirrors sets the tone that what we will see here is something that will indeed feel like a magic show, full of wonder, scares, and surprising revelations, all of which Baker’s documentary succeeds in accomplishing. Those unfamiliar with Savini outside of his effects work will be immediately amazed with a look at his other talents, as we’re treated to a clip show of his acting, stunts, and even directing.
Featuring interviews that read like a who’s who of horror icons list, from the likes of Alice Cooper, Corey Feldman, Danny McBride, Bill Moseley, Greg Nicotero, Caroline Williams, and so many more, to deceased legends, Sid Haig and George Romero, this documentary spans Savini’s entire life, with perspectives from all sorts of friends and colleagues who have met him along the way.
And like most documentaries, Smoke and Mirrors isn’t all sunshine and blood-splattered rainbows. In fact, half of it is surprisingly heartbreaking, and while I’ve always been a fan, I’ve never wanted to give Savini a hug as badly as I did watching this. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Savini’s time spent in Nam as a photographer taking pictures of dead soldiers—a period which the documentary does spend time with, even letting us in on why Tom came to be known as the “Duck Slayer”—but what you might not be as familiar with is Tom’s home life.
Smoke and Mirrors takes us through Tom’s entire existence, beginning as a child. We listen to him discuss, with deep reflection and pain, the deaths of his brother and his father, his divorces, estranged relationships, the hit to his ego that he took when someone made fun of his nose, and the hardships which he faced by growing up in a poor household. When we think of professional “kill designers”, as I like to refer to it, the general misconception is that these are sinister sickos obsessed with blood who hide out in their basements to avoid all human contact, but damnit, Janet, that’s just not true. Through all of these recounts of the darker times of his life, Tom reveals himself to be a warm, thoughtful person, who has managed to always keep his head up, no matter what.
Did I tear up during any of these stories? Yes, yes I did. And if you’re a fan of the guy or even remotely human, you might, too.
And it’s not because of the sadness of it all. It’s because, at the center of all of the tragedy and struggle which Tom has suffered, there is this pulsating body of hope flowing throughout Smoke and Mirrors, accentuated by interviews with Tom’s friends and family. Baker lends us a deep understanding of the way others see Tom, in particular, his daughter Lia, who talks about opportunities which Tom has sacrificed for her, and what makes him not just a great dad, but a wonderful person.
Aside from all of that sappy stuff which may interest some of you a little less—you scarecrows in need of a heart, you--Smoke and Mirrors lives up to its title in showing what makes Tom’s world so magical. The film is a showcase of Tom’s gruesomely awesome work. We’re gifted a look at his massive mask collection, rare footage of his acting performances in theater, which Tom considers sort of a second home that has time and again inspired him, and even cut footage of some of his grislier effects. A lot of that footage comes from his Night of the Living Dead remake, which gets a good dose of screen time as Tom explores what went wrong, and how he views the film now. I promise you, if you’ve never seen this footage, it will make you drool as you consider the glory that could have been the gore in this remake, which I will always defend as being a phenomenal film regardless. He made Barbara the badass zombie killer. Enough said.
My complaints over Smoke and Mirrors are transient at best. The quality on bits of the voiceover audio isn’t always perfect, and Baker and editor Mitch Cleaver’s editing is a tad rambunctious, hopping all around Tom’s life in a way that comes off choppy and inconsistent.
But it doesn’t matter. Because what’s there is a moving insight into a man who is nowhere near the strange monster guy that you might think he is. Smoke and Mirrors shows Tom as an innovator. A father. A friend. A legend. Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini is a must-see for all fans of Savini’s work, and further proof that, like many of the characters he has played, he is in fact, the coolest guy in Hollywood.
Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini is now streaming on Shudder.
By Matt Konopka