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A Tribute to Horror Icon Tom Savini's Most Memorable Acting Roles

Savini’s character loses a finger (and eventually, a whole lot more) in Planet Terror.
Savini’s character loses a finger (and eventually, a whole lot more) in Planet Terror.
Screenshot: YouTube

Tom Savini is one of the greatest special effects make-up artists ever—a master of masks, creatures, prosthetics, fake blood, and screamingly gruesome ways to die. But he actually got his show-biz start as an actor, and over the years he’s tapped into those talents and popped up in some very cool places.

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It can be startling to see Savini appear in a movie that has nothing to do with horror—see: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, though there is a logical explanation there. Those films are set in Savini’s native Pittsburgh, the city that brought him together with the director he’d be associated with throughout his career: zombie king George A. Romero, who hired him to both act and do effects for Martin and Dawn of the Dead. A few years later, Savini really cemented his reputation for creating glorious gore with his work on the hugely influential first entry in the Friday the 13th series.

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Savini’S resume also includes credits as a director (he made the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, and recently helmed an episode of Shudder’s Creepshow series) and a stuntman. He’s also appeared in a number of horror-themed documentaries over the years—including Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini, a deep dive into his life and long, still-active career. Whether it’s a larger role, a small character part, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, an on-camera appearance by Savini—who is often cast as either law enforcement or some kind of motorcycle gang member—has come to be the ultimate Easter egg for horror fans. With that in mind, here are our favorites.


Dawn of the Dead

At a certain point in Romero’s 1978 sequel to 1968's Night of the Living Dead, life has kind of stabilized for the film’s small group of survivors. Sure, the outside world is crawling with zombies, but they’ve found relative safety and plenty of supplies by taking up residence in an abandoned shopping mall. That false sense of security evaporates the moment their presence is detected by a roving gang of raiders, who exist to remind us that post-apocalyptic humans really are the worst monsters.

Savini plays Blades, a biker who’s quick with knives (including a big-ass machete) and slays quite a few zombies ahead of his own dramatic death scene, which sees him shot by Ken Foree’s character before plunging over a balcony and into a fountain below. Blades makes a brief appearance, as a full-on zombie this time, in Romero’s 2005 Land of the Dead—and Savini also has a cameo in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, playing a sheriff being interviewed on TV and offering some age-old advice: “Just shoot them in the head!”

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Knightriders

Knightriders is not a horror movie—it’s about a biker gang whose members style themselves after Arthurian knights and travel around performing motorcycle jousting at Renaissance fairs. Though it’s set in the real world, there is a fantasy element (Ed Harris, who plays “King” Billy, has prophetic dreams about his death). But mostly this is a cult movie on account of that inspired yet bonkers premise, which is played very earnestly, and the fact that it’s written and directed by Romero.

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Knightriders runs two and a half hours but somehow manages to be thoroughly enjoyable—with a huge assist from Savini, who turns in the movie’s standout performance. He plays Sir Morgan, the Black Knight, whose rivalry with Billy is mostly friendly until they have a falling-out over signing with a slick promoter who dangles promises of show-biz glory. While Billy’s biggest fear is turning into another Evel Knievel, Morgan gets a taste of fame he’s been longing for—including a corny photoshoot—before realizing the definition of honor doesn’t include selling his soul. It’s a character that could have been a one-note vain asshole, but Savini gives Morgan surprising nuance, even in scenes where he’s wearing not much more than a Speedo.

Creepshow

This 1982 anthology film, directed by Romero from a screenplay by Stephen King, features an array of magnificently disturbing Savini special effects—including “Fluffy,” a toothy beast that emerges from a long-abandoned storage crate to terrify a college campus. Savini himself appears at the tail end of the film, playing one of the harried garbage collectors who stumbles upon the discarded comic book that inspired the whole film. (The verve with which he yells “IT’S A COMIC BOOK!” just makes me laugh every time.) When Romero produced a 1987 sequel, Savini returned—just acting this time—to pile on prosthetics and play the Creep himself in the frame story, which is cool even if Creepshow 2 itself is kinda meh.

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Maniac

Savini did the grisly make-up effects for this 1980 William Lustig slasher, which stars Joe Spinell (who also co-wrote the screenplay) as Frank, a sicko who prowls the streets of New York looking for women to murder so he can add their scalps to his growing collection of realistic mannequins. While Frank targets female victims, he’ll kill any dude who happens to be in the way—including Savini’s character, a groovy sleaze who’s just trying to lure his disco date into the back seat of his car but loses his head to Frank’s shotgun blast instead.

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Yep, that is correct: a few years after crafting one of cinema’s most outstanding exploding heads ever in Dawn of the Dead, Savini blows up his own head here—in brain-splattering slow motion. The Maniac scene lingers so long on the carnage (the camera can’t stop cutting back over to look at it!) you can tell that both Lustig and Savini were rightfully stoked by how the effect turned out.

From Dusk Till Dawn

This 1996 collaboration between Robert Rodriguez (who directed) and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and co-stars) follows a pair of obnoxious bank robbers who take a road-tripping family hostage as a means to get into Mexico. Things take a turn when they stop at the Titty Twister, a raucous strip club that’s actually a haven for vampires—something none of the human customers realize until fangs start ripping out throats. Savini, who is clearly having a blast the entire time, plays a biker named “Sex Machine” whose weaponry includes a bullwhip and a gun that flips up out of the crotch of his leather pants.

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Sex Machine, whose greatest hits include fighting a vampire Danny Trejo on top of a pool table, unfortunately, gets bitten in battle—giving Savini a chance to showcase his crack comedic timing as his character nervously attempts to conceal the fact that he’s about to transform. After From Dusk Till Dawn, Savini worked with both Rodriguez (in two movies also on this list) and Tarantino (in Django Unchained) again; he also had a recurring role as a completely new character on the From Dusk Till Dawn TV series.

Planet Terror

Rodriguez and Tarantino teamed up again for hyper-stylized 2007 double-feature Grindhouse, with Savini appearing in Rodriguez’s splattery yarn Planet Terror. He plays a sheriff’s deputy who bursts onto the scene mid-movie rightfully furious about his freshly gnawed-off finger (“Shut the fuck up! Somebody take care of this perp for me before I fucking kill him!”), and then continuously tries to retrieve his wedding ring (with no ring finger left, he sighs and slides it on his middle digit) while zombie mayhem breaks out around the police station. The bumbling deputy somehow survives all the way through Planet Terror’s “missing reel” gag, but when the movie picks back up again he’s just accidentally shot the sheriff (Michael Biehn) in the neck...and then gets spectacularly ripped limb from limb soon after.

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Machete

The first, and best, fake trailer featured in Grindhouse was such a crowd-pleaser that Rodriguez made it into an actual feature in 2010. Machete is, of course, mostly about a glowering Danny Trejo—who actually originated the character way back in 2001, for Rodriguez’s first Spy Kids movie—exacting all manner of violent revenge on those who’ve wronged him. Savini turns up as a machine gun-toting assassin named Osiris Amanpour, hired by a one of the movie’s baddies (by calling “1-800-Hitman,” according to his advertisement) to handle their Machete problem—part of which involves crucifying Machete’s brother, a priest played by Cheech Marin, to get him to talk.

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In 2013's Machete Kills, we see a guilt-ridden Osiris has become a man of the cloth himself and switched sides to help Machete’s cause. Though our surly hero is suspicious at first, Osiris proves his loyalty by taking a bullet—a chest-melting, sci-fi bullet fired by Mel Gibson, no less—for Machete in the end.

TV bonus round!

Tom Savini stopped by the Android’s Dungeon on The Simpsons.
Tom Savini stopped by the Android’s Dungeon on The Simpsons.
Image: Fox
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We couldn’t do a list of our favorite Savini acting roles without mentioning the time he played himself on The Simpsons, turning up for an appearance at the Android’s Dungeon to mercilessly prank the Comic Book Guy on season 12's “Worst Episode Ever.”

Even more recently, we shrieked in delight to see him on a pair of shows adapted from works by Savini’s old pal Joe Hill (the son of Stephen King, Hill famously played the little kid who loves horror comics in Creepshow’s frame story). In AMC’s NOS4A2, Savini appeared as a menacing supernatural barfly; in Netflix’s Locke and Key, he played a kindly hardware-store owner—a particularly cool cameo since he’s also name-checked by the show’s resident high-school horror geeks, “the Savini Squad.”

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DISCUSSION

Jesus! I saw the title and my heart sank! For a brief moment, I thought Tom Savini had died.