Make-up master Savini's program going strong in Monessen

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 9:16 p.m.

With an artist's flair, Richard Brennan meticulously applied “blood” — a potion including corn syrup and food coloring — to complete a demonstration of zombie make-up believable enough to startle passersby in Monessen.

Brennan, 21, practices his special effects skills as a student at Tom Savini's Special Make-Up Effects Program, a part of the Douglas Education Center in Monessen.

The 13-year-old program named for local actor, director and special make-up effects guru Tom Savini has educated more than 1,000 students. October is a big month for enrollment, Savini said, possibly with Halloween as a contributing factor.

Savini, 66, a Pittsburgh native who now travels worldwide to help bring films to the big screen, serves as a consultant to the program.

He looked on as Brennan, a New York native, applied make-up on fellow student Zack Graham, 19, of Michigan.

“Clean edges — that's great,” Savini told Brennan.

The first step to transforming a student's face into a believable zombie: Creating a foam cast of the subject's face, then molding it to fit just right.

Students learn how to create and bring sculpture to life.

“We call it the Frankenstein system,” Savini said.

No matter how outlandish the character — even an alien or zombie — Savini reminds his students to pay attention to bone structure.

“The trick is to use the real person as much as possible,” he said.

Students study disciplines of anatomy, animatronics, art appreciation, painting and cosmetology.

Indeed, Brennan said: “You learn everything from sculpting it, molding it, applying it.”

Students leave the program with skills to work in the film industry, talents that also translate to work in prosthetic industries, dental labs and mortician's offices.

Graduates of the 16-month degree program have appeared on TV shows, such as SyFy's “Face Off,” TLC's “Cake Boss” and Food Network's “Sugar Dome,” said Katharine Kellar, the center's public relations coordinator. They've also worked with “Saturday Night Live” and AMC's “The Walking Dead,” among a “large variety of TV and movies,” Kellar said.

Students travel from as far away as Budapest, Paris, Colombia and from across the United States to study at the Savini school.

Graham said he dreamed of attending the Savini school since eighth grade. He hopes to work in the film industry in Los Angeles.

Classmate Brennan, too, aspires to work in film as a sculptor and creature designer.

For Halloween this year, they'll both re-purpose costumes they made in class.

Students work with lead instructor and technical director Jerry Gergely of Charleroi, who concentrates on sculpture and mold-making. Gergely served as key special effects makeup artist for TV series “Babylon 5,” and also assisted with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The X-Files.”

“I've wanted to make movies since I was probably about 9 years old,” Gergely said.

Since the program began in 2000, school buildings have expanded and so have class sizes. The first class numbered 13, and the most recent class boasts 60 students, Savini said.

Savini, a self-taught special effects wizard, remembers studying books to learn the tricks of the trade.

“I started when I was 11,” Savini said. “You go see a movie, you go home to experiment on yourself.”

He'd talk to renowned makeup artist Dick Smith on the phone, listening to Smith “share his secrets.”

Savini has published two books about makeup effects.

He's also racked up a laundry list of film credits, including serving as director for the 1990 version of “Night of the Living Dead.” Among his movie credits, he's acted in “Django Unchained,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “The Simpsons.”

In addition, he's created special make-up effects for films including “Friday the 13th,” “Maniac, and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.”

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or

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