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Tom Savini Explains The Enduring Appeal of Zombies, In Film and On TV

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire March 14, 2014 at 12:13PM

Tom Savini, one of the interviewees in Epix's "Doc of the Dead," is a great guy to talk zombies with. The horror legend has worked as an actor and director (who remade "Night of the Living Dead" in 1990), but is best known for his special effects and makeup work on films like George A. Romero's seminal "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead."
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Epix Tom Savini in 'Doc of the Dead'

Tom Savini is a great guy to talk zombies with. The horror legend has worked as an actor and director (who remade "Night of the Living Dead" in 1990), but is best known for his special effects and makeup work on films like George A. Romero's seminal "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Savini's one of the interviewees in "Doc of the Dead," a new documentary from "The People vs. George Lucas" director Alexandre O. Philippe that explores the evolution of the zombie on screen, from its early days in features like the Haiti-set "White Zombie" through Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" through to the AMC juggernaut that is "The Walking Dead." The film explores the appeal of the animated undead by way of interviews with folks like Savini and Romero as well as actors Bruce Campbell and Simon Pegg and writers Max Brooks and Robert Kirkman.

"Doc of the Dead" premieres on Epix this Saturday, March 15th at 8pm ET after having made its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this week. Indiewire caught up with Savini by phone to discuss the continuing appeal of the zombie genre, something he continues to explore with plans to direct a film called "Death Island" that he describes as a "unique take" on the trop -- "I just gave the script to my friends at Full Sail University. We have an offer and the budget is very low so I think it would have to be done with a big school like Full Sail that has all the equipment and students galore."

'Day of the Dead'

In "Doc of the Dead," fast zombies versus slow zombies is posed as an essential debate in the genre. Where do you stand?

Well, I agree with George Romero. At conventions he sells bumper stickers that say "Fast Zombies Suck," and his logic is that if you're a zombie you're dead, and you continue to be more dead, you decay and rot. You don't become a superhero, you know.

Why do you think the fast version has had such appeal?

Well, there's only so much you can do to the face and the hands and clothing to make them scary. A big point was made in my "Night of the Living Dead" and George's original that, we can outrun them -- why are we holing up in this house? So if you're a director and you want to make them scary, you make them fast. In "28 Days Later" they were fast, but they weren't zombies, they were just fucked up people with some virus or chemical or whatever. The appeal is they're more threatening. Even the first zombie, Frankenstein, was slow -- but if he caught up to you, good luck. 

In a lot of of zombie film and TV, humans end up being the biggest problem, the biggest danger to themselves.

Even without zombies, they are! Humans are our worst enemy, aren't we? It's gotten to the point with me where on Facebook, for example, I don't need anybody who comes in with bad news. Anyone who comes in with pictures of abused children or abused animals, at my age -- I'm 67 -- I don't need unpleasantness in my life anymore, I want only happy stuff. If you would've asked what I'm afraid of, I'd have said spiders, and razor blades, but mostly crazy people! Mindless people who want hurt you... there are lots of mindless people out there who aren't zombies.

'The Walking Dead'

Zombies have their roots in folklore, but their present day incarnation is very rooted in George Romero's vision of them on screen, in films that you've worked on that brought them to life (er, afterlife). What do you think is so compelling about the idea that they've made their way into the horror cannon so relatively quickly compared to some other classic figures? 

Wolfman, Dracula... zombies seem to slipped right through. They've always been something to people. To me, the best zombies around are the ones Greg Nicotero is doing on "The Walking Dead." Greg was my protege -- I've known him since he was 14, he's done a lot of movies with me, he was trained by me, so I have to one-up him. I have this thing called "Death Island" that we're trying to get done, and that goes back to the Haiti voodoo-type zombies you saw in "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943). I want to go back to that original thing. All the zombies are gonna be black and covered with mud and scars.

It would be another take on it, and that's what makes it in the world today. Why do people like them running fast? Well, that's a new thing. I didn't see "Warm Bodies," but I imagine that was a new thing, some girl falling in love with a zombie... I thought that was a dumb premise, but I hear it's pretty good? Look at "World War Z," that movie took advantage of how the best scares come from suspense. They created these horrible situations and then threw people into them. That goes back to Hitchcock, show the bomb under the table, show the creature or psycho behind the door, and then send somebody toward the door -- it's suspense!

'World War Z'

You mentioned "Warm Bodies" -- there's been a recent trend of shows about nontraditional zombies, that French TV series "The Returned," the British zombie series "In the Flesh." Have you seen any of these? What are your thoughts on this new drama approach to zombies, where it's about what do you do if you can return them to something resembling the living?

I haven't seen that, but I have seen a preview for something called "Resurrection," and it was kind of offensive. We all have loved ones who have gone on -- my brother Tony died when I was 14, if he walked in the door today... First of all, that's totally implausible and I'd think I was dreaming -- I do dream about him occasionally -- but I just don't see the connection. My intelligence just kind of shuts down and dismisses it. I don't want sad unpleasantness, and with the previews I saw, the kid comes back after 32 years, and he's still a kid, and the parents are not even in the position to raise the kid anymore, it just raises too many problems.

Do you feel that zombies are tied, maybe more than other classical horror figures, to the power of practical effects?

The zombies in "World War Z," the ones that you saw, the ones inside the clinic, that was pretty unique. Those were performances as zombies, and you don't really see a lot of that. You hear that a lot when someone's making the distinction between the original "Dawn of the Dead" and the remake. In the original, you got to see particular zombies, like the baseball players. In the remake, you remember maybe one key zombie, probably the Jay Leno zombie they pointed on in the ground.

'Night of the Living Dead' (1990)

On "Night of the Living Dead" we had a movement instructor, to instruct the actors, that if you left your body and your body was left hanging on a fence, and something takes it over that had never moved a human body before, how would you walk, how would you manipulate, how would you go from one place to another. The results were just hilarious. So we canceled all of that out and said no no, just walk slow.

There's only so much you can do to the face and eyes and clothes to make a zombie scary. To me, the best practical effects today are a combination of practical effects and CGI, like the zombie in "The Walking Dead" crawling with no lower body. Obviously that person does have a lower body and was dressed in green or blue or whatever they use. I run an effects school in Pennsylvania, and we teach mostly practical effects but we certainly touch on CGI as part your toolbox, because undoubtedly you will be working in a situation where there are a lot of practical effects but they’re enhanced with CGI stuff. 

I love CGI when it's done well. It may sound strange coming from me, because if you watch my stuff in movies it’s happening right in front of you, but I wish we had CGI back then to solve some problems. Getting rid of an edge or enhancing stuff, which is what they have today. I love it when it's done well.

Another topic surfaced in "Doc of the Dead" is, with all of these intensely realized zombie apocalypse scenarios, have you ever given thought to what you would do in a theoretical zombie apocalypse?

I hardly have to do anything. In my house, the windows have bars on them. On the first floor, they all have bars. My house was broken into a couple of years ago, so I’ve taken measures. They came in the back door -- a decorative medieval door that now has metal bands on the insides. You would need drive a tank into my back door to get through it now.

So I’m pretty safe. And I have an arsenal in here. I don’t hunt, I’ve never killed any animals, but I have a huge collection of guns. Target shooting mostly, but just as a collector of old guns, new guns. I even have a Mannlicher-Carcano, which is supposedly the weapon that Oswald used to kill Kennedy. And so much ammunition it's pathetic -- and it's not because I believe in any kind of zombie apocalypse. I see these TV shows where there are people that do. We're getting dumber and dumber out there.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Tom Savini, Doc of the Dead, EPIX