Review: Limited Production Value Aside, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini Gives a Great Effects Artist His Due

Although it sometimes feels like a beefed-up DVD extra, the latest documentary on special makeup effects guru, actor, stuntman, director, and teacher Tom Savini is so packed full of great information and details about the legend that it’s easy to look beyond some of the editing and emphasis issues. From director Jason Baker, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini hits all of the film highlights you expect and want, from his early collaborations with George Romero in Martin, Creepshow, and  Dawn of the Dead, (the latter of which also features Savini in a memorable acting role) to his work on the first Friday the 13th movie, The Burning, Maniac, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and later collaborations with Romero (Day of the Dead, Monkey Shines, Two Evil Eyes).

Tom Savini
Image courtesy of the film

But as the film digs deeper, we realize that for a time, acting was Savini’s first love, from stage acting in high school in Pittsburgh and even professionally for many years, to film roles in such works as Knight Riders, From Dusk Till Dawn, Land of the Dead, Machete, and even The Perks of Being a Wallflower (set in his hometown of Pittsburgh). We do a deep dive on Savini’s creative parents and siblings, how his time as a military photographer during the Vietnam War completely changed his life and influenced his approach to gore effects, and how his personal life (many marriages, kids, grandkids) impacted his professional life in both positive and negative ways. By the end of Smoke and Mirrors, we feel we know what makes Savini tick, what inspired him creatively, and what went into every decision he made about jobs he would pursue.

There are testimonials from many figures he worked with as well as friends from the horror convention circuit, including Doug Bradley, Bill Moseley, Tony Todd, Danny Trejo, Corey Feldman, Alice Cooper, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger (both students of Savini; Nicotero is a producer on the film), Tom Atkins, Danny McBride, Robert Rodriguez, and plenty of archival interviews with Romero. The on-set footage is priceless, but it’s the tours of his old workshop and mask collection that are the material I studied as I was watching this. Savini’s two-volume Grande Illusions coffee table books were well earmarked when I was growing up, and his status as a genius and artist is etched in concrete the world over. I wish this documentary was a bit less self-aware and slapped together, but the fact that it exists at all is exciting and long overdue. The interviews and footage with his daughter and eldest grandson are priceless and give us a great sense of what an ideal family man he is, while the rest of the movie shows us why Savini is the King of Splatter.

The film is now available on demand and via digital release.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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