Tom Savini passes the torch to the next generation of horror artists

Scary things have been going on at a school in Monessen thanks to legendary special effects artist Tom Savini.

 Photo:Courtesy Douglas Education Center
 Photo:Courtesy Douglas Education Center
 Photo:Courtesy Douglas Education Center
 Photo:Courtesy Douglas Education Center
 Photo:Courtesy Douglas Education Center
 Photo:Courtesy Douglas Education Center

For almost 18 years, students in Monessen have been learning the art of horror.

It began as a special effects and makeup program at Douglas Education Center in 2000, which became the talk of artists and horror fans interested in creating their own movie monsters. But the biggest draw was the founder of the program: veteran effects artist Tom Savini.

The late George Romero and Tom Savini 
Courtesy Douglas Education Center

Pittsburgh-native Savini first came to prominence with his work on George A. Romero’s films “Martin” and “Dawn of the Dead” and soon became a household name for horror movie fans for his collaborations with Romero and effects work on hits such as “Friday the 13th” and “The Burning.”

However, learning the secrets of the trade was very much a do-it-yourself effort for Savini.

“It was very hard growing up and wanting to do this stuff,” Savini says. “Everyone was secretive about the methods except for Dick Smith (known for his work on “The Exorcist” and “Little Big Man”) who was the greatest living makeup artist on the planet.”

When Jeff Imbrescia, then-CEO and president at Douglas, approached him about creating a make-up effects program at the school, Savini agreed, describing it as “kind of a payback” to Smith’s support of up-and-coming artists.

“(Smith) invented everything we do and he shared all the information you could ask for,” Savini says. “He was a huge inspiration for me for sharing his knowledge and in away, I am simply passing it on to new generations who want to learn.”

Robert Tinnell, director of George A. Romero’s Filmmaking Program at Douglas Education Center and Jerry Gergely, director of Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program at Douglas Education Center, with Savini. 
Courtesy Douglas Education Center

However, to pass along that knowledge, Savini and Imbrescia would need to find teachers and fortunately, Savini had already met a perfect candidate while shooting “Dawn of the Dead” at the Monroeville Mall in 1977. Jerry Gergely was a budding teenage filmmaker in the 1970s making backyard movies with his father’s Super8 camera. He didn’t know much about special effects when he was starting out – even admitting to using ketchup as fake blood – but became interested in the craft once a friend gave him a copy of “Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Makeup Handbook.”

“That just totally blew my mind that was able to make fake blood and do scars and wounds and bullet holes,” Gergely says. “I thought you could only do that in Hollywood.”

Gergely spent the summer teaching himself the lessons from Smith’s handbook and brought a few of his creations to school to show friends when they caught the eye of his English teacher, who happened to be a community theater actress. The theater was in need of a makeup artist for a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and Gergely ended up with the job.

During the production, several of the actors were heading to the Monroeville Mall to be extras in “Dawn of the Dead,” where they would stand in a line to be made up as zombies by Savini and the other makeup artists on the set.

“I was so fascinated that I kept getting in the back of the line,” Gergely recalls. “I was the absolute last one and I met Tom and had the nerve to say, ‘I’ve been dabbling in some makeup.’”

On the set, Savini gave Gergely advice on creating a portfolio and then had the teenager write down all of the different makeups and supplies on the table to learn more about using them.

Gergely kept in touch with Savini, finally sending him a portfolio for the 1982 production of “Creepshow,” which was filmed mostly in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the portfolio got lost in the production office, but Savini recommended another production coming to town – which hired Gergely and started his career.

Gergely later worked with Savini on several Pittsburgh-lensed horror films, including “Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh” and “Two Evil Eyes” – an Edgar Allen Poe-inspired anthology film from Romero and Italian director Dario Argento.

It was during these films that Savini recommended Gergely for a teaching position at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where he taught for several years and also satisfied his newlywed wife’s urging to “settle down and have a real job.”

After a falling out with the administration at the Art Institute, Gergely left for Los Angeles to work with the effects studio Optic Nerve in Los Angeles, leading to an Emmy award for his work on the sci-fi TV series “Babylon 5.”

However, his father fell ill, bringing Gergely back to Pittsburgh, which was about the same time Savini was looking for teachers at Douglas.

“He offered me the job here and I decided to take it for a year,” Gergely says. “It’s been 17 years and I’m still here. The program has really exploded and it’s been a good experience.”

Gabrielle Pelletier applies makeup to Kate Yerke during a class at Tom Savini’s Special Effects Make-Up Program. The makeup was part of a “look-a-like” assignment where Pelletier was recreating makeup worn by rock star Marilyn Manson. 
Justin Channell

The 16-month program begins at a “very elementary level, assuming (students) know nothing about special effects,” according to Gergely.

“We start from the basic skills – sculpture, mold making, painting and fabricating – and then they develop that in that direction they want to go,” Gergely says.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter school where they all come out of here with the same portfolio. There’s a lot of versatility and students can design their portfolio with what their talents are.”

“It’s amazing when a student comes in and has never sculpted before and suddenly they are moving clay around beautifully to create a creature, a monster or a historical likeness – giving life to something that didn’t exist and seeing that they had it inside them all the time,” Savini says.

Savini has even been so enthusiastic about students’ artwork that he has bought works from students who are only in the second semester of the program, saying he was “happy to own (work) from someone who has never done it before.”

Alumni of Savini’s program include multiple contestants and two winners of SyFy’s TV competition “Face Off” as well as artists who have worked on countless Hollywood movies and TV shows.

While not all of the students can be placed as a Hollywood effects artist, they do receive an associate’s degree in socialized business that is also beneficial in a number of artistic professions, including the dental industry and creating medical prosthetics.

However, all of the students do have the benefit working within Douglas Education Center’s other programs, which include a film school bearing the name of George A. Romero and a cosmetology program.

John Carter applies makeup to Molly Miller during a class at Tom Savini’s Special Effects Make-Up Program at Douglas Education Center. 
Justin Channell

The programs work together, so makeup students at the Savini program also have the opportunity to work on films for students in the Romero program.

“The students get to work on actual projects that the film students are doing,” Gergely says, “We have a big green screen soundstage. Whatever they want to do, they have the facility there, so it’s really a win-win situation between the programs.”

While there are students enrolled in the Savini program from the Pittsburgh area, Gergely says “most of the students we get are from out of town or other countries,” with a students interested in special effects coming from as far as Korea to study in Monessen.

As the creative programs have grown, Savini and Gergely say that growth has also extended to the city itself:

“I can tell what I’ve seen happen to Monessen: it grew and businesses have come into the town now,” Savini says.

“It’s brought so many students to the community,” Gergely concurs. “It’s been helpful for the economy, absolutely.”