100 Years in Horror: The Greatest Special Effects Makeup Artists Ever!

The field of practical effects is more essential to horror than it is to any other genre (with the possible exception of sci-fi), so it only makes sense that the fifth entry in our “100 Years of Horror” series shines a spotlight on the masters behind some of the greatest gore and creature effects in movie history. From severed limbs to acid-spitting aliens, from expertly applied “knife wounds” to the walking dead, from heaping piles of spilled intestines to howling creatures of the night, B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen took a look back at the craftsmen who have brought some of our worst nightmares to vivid on-screen life. Join us, now, as we celebrate a century of scares with a list of the greatest practical effects artists in horror movie history.

Note: the list is not ranked; the following are listed in alphabetical order.

Rick Baker

Notable Credits: The Funhouse, An American Werewolf in London, Videodrome, Hellboy,

Meeting Rick Baker earlier this year was kind of like meeting the special effects makeup equivalent of Meryl Streep, in that there are few working in his field today who possess quite the same amount of star-power, not to mention Academy Awards credentials – he’s won more Oscars than any other special effects makeup artist in history. That would be six, including the first-ever prize for his stunning, never-bested (at least in this writer’s estimation) werewolf transformation in 1981′s An American Werewolf in London. That he’s remained as humble as he has after all of his success, and that he still enjoys doing what he does after decades of being caught up in the Hollywood gristmill (he started out making artificial body parts in his kitchen as a teenager), is just icing on the cake.

Howard Berger/Robert Kurtzman/Gregory Nicotero (KNB Effects)

Notable Credits: Evil Dead II, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, Army of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, From Dusk Till Dawn, Scream 1-3

Given that they co-founded KNB Efx Group together very early on in their careers, it’s tough to separate out the achievements of Gregory Nicotero, Howard Bergman, and Robert Kurtzman as individual craftsmen. While Kurtzman has since (circa 2002) left the studio to start his own production company, KNB has without a doubt become the most prolific and in-demand effects house in the modern movie industry. Favorites of a whole host of top-shelf filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Sam Raimi, Eli Roth, George Romero, Frank Darabont, and Alex Aja, over the years the founders and their technicians have managed to create a wide variety of spectacular effects – from the hordes of the walking dead in Army of Darkness, to Drew Barrymore’s exposed intestines in Scream, to all those oozing pustules in Planet Terror – that have solidified the studio’s status as the top player in town.

Rob Bottin

Notable Credits: The Fog, The Howling, The Thing, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Seven

Boy-wonder apprentice to Rick Baker at 14. Founder of a Hollywood special effects company at 18. Lead special effects technician on a feature at age 19. Nominated for an Oscar at 28. Oscar recipient at 32. Really, Rob Bottin’s resume is enough to make anybody, no matter what field they’re in, feel a tad inferior in comparison. If his only credit had been John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi/horror classic The Thing – on which he worked for 57 grueling weeks straight – Rob Bottin would have gone down as one of the greatest special effects artists in the history of cinema. That he also crafted the groundbreaking third-act werewolf transformation in The Howling – one that rivaled his mentor Rick Baker’s own work on that same year’s An American Werewolf in London – only seals his legacy as a modern master of special effects makeup. He sadly hasn’t worked much in the last ten years (his last credit is the 2002 Adam Sandler vehicle Mr. Deeds), but given the fact that he started his career at age 14 working for Rick Baker I’d say he’s earned the right to rest on his laurels a bit.

Lon Chaney, Sr.

Notable Credits: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, The Unknown, London After Midnight

An actor first and foremost, Lon Chaney – nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Faces” – is perhaps the earliest pioneer in the field of special effects makeup for film, having successfully transformed himself in several silent movies of the 1920s, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight. Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of Chaney’s hyper-realistic effects work is that, unlike the majority of those who came after him, he was his own guinea pig. Sometimes he would go to painful lengths to create a convincingly monstrous visage; in Phantom he pinned his nose up with wire (to create a skull-like appearance) and wore a set of extremely uncomfortable false teeth to portray the deformed title character. His highly sympathetic performance in the film was masterful, but in the end it was that horrific makeup – particularly as shock-revealed in the famous “unmasking scene” – that cemented it as his most memorable role. Chaney died at age 47 of complications from bronchial lung cancer, sadly not living long enough to witness what an enormous impact his groundbreaking work would have on the future of special makeup effects.

Giannetto De Rossi

Notable Credits: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Zombie, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, High Tension

When you remember some of the most famous kill scenes in Lucio Fulci’s oeuvre, chances are a good majority of them were created by expert special effects makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi. The son of Alberto De Rossi, Elizabeth Taylor’s onetime makeup artist, he started working on movie sets in his early 20s, both individually and with his father on films like Taming of the Shrew and Once Upon a Time in the West, before branching out into horror with 1974′s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. His impressive zombie/gore effects work on that film led to a job on Joe D’Amato’s infamous Emmanuelle in America (for the snuff film sequences), and following that he became a Fulci favorite, creating grotesquely-realized gags in films like Zombie, The Beyond (he shared credit with Germano Natali), and House by the Cemetery. He broke into mainstream American films later on with Conan the Destroyer, Dune and Rambo III among others, but he’ll always remain best known for the pierced eyeballs and flesh-eating spiders of Fulci’s string of late ’70s/early ’80s classics. It’s simply a fact that those films wouldn’t have been remembered half as well today if not for his extraordinary work.

Alec Gillis & Tom Woodruff, Jr. (Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.)

Notable Credits: The Monster Squad, Tremors, Alien 3, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man

Woodruff and Gillis both came out of Stan Winston’s studio – where they worked with their mentor on films like Aliens and Monster Squad – before starting up their own effects company, Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc., in 1988. They quickly rose to prominence from there, and in 1992 won an Oscar for their body effects design work on the dark comedy/fantasy Death Becomes Her (humorously beating out their other effects nomination on that same year’s Alien 3). The duo later designed some of the eye-popping full-scale “Bug” effects for Starship Troopers, for which they were once again nominated at that year’s Academy Awards. While both deserve equal credit for their impressive body of work, it should also be noted that Woodruff is also a talented suit performer who has portrayed xenomorphs in every single Alien and AvP film (with the exception of Ridley Scott’s original), as well as “Gillman” in Monster Squad, the title character in Pumpkinhead, and even a “Grabboid” in Tremors. The two have their work cut out for them on the upcoming Thing prequel (who could possibly top Rob Bottin’s work on the Carpenter film?), but based on what I saw during my set visit – not to mention their history of creating superb creature effects – I’d say we’re in good hands.

Germano Natali

Notable Credits: Deep Red, Suspiria, The Beyond, The New York Ripper, Opera

A frequent Dario Argento collaborator, special effects master Germano Natali created many of the brutal, hyper-stylized murders in films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Inferno, in addition to lending his talents to a couple of Fulci films, including The Beyond (with Giannetto De Rossi) and The New York Ripper, in which he created the impressive, climactic “gunshot through the face” effect. Suspiria arguably contains his best-known work (if only for the fact that it’s Argento’s most famous film), including the gruesome first-act double murder that actually includes a shot of a knife penetrating a beating human heart. It is this sort of over-the-top audacity that made he and Argento such great partners in crime, in that it was not only the visual effectiveness of the kills but the boldness with which they were conceived that made them so memorable.

Jack Pierce

Notable Credits: Frankenstein, White Zombie, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man

It may sound a bit silly now, but the fact remains that we may never have known the genius of Jack Pierce had he been tall in physical stature. Originally pursuing a career as an actor in Hollywood silent films, Pierce – not a “leading man type” – was often cast as the villain, and through sheer ingenuity would compensate for his diminutive size by applying makeup effects that gave the illusion of height. In 1927 his career off-camera really ramped up when he stepped in to tackle the challenge of transforming an actor into a realistic-looking chimpanzee on Raoul Walsh’s The Monkey Talks, a job which led Universal head Carl Laemmle to hire him as a full-time makeup artist at the studio. The notoriously difficult Pierce went on to create some of the most iconic monster-movie makeup in cinema history, including perhaps the most famous of all time, Boris Karloff’s “Monster” in Frankenstein. Along with his work on 1932′s The Mummy and 1941′s The Wolf Man, he without a doubt created some of the most definitive monsters in movie history. Sad, then, that he reportedly died a bitter man, feeling he’d never gotten the recognition he deserved. If only he were alive today.

Carlo Rambaldi

Notable Credits: A Lizard in the Woman’s Skin, Bay of Blood, Deep Red, Alien, Possession

Though he’s most associated with creating the stunningly life-like title character in E.T. (for which he received his third Oscar), Carlo Rambaldi had worked steadily as a special-effects maestro long before he was honored with that mainstream distinction. Born in 1925 in Vigarano Mainarda, Italy, Rambaldi’s first known work was as “dragon creator” on the Italian fantasy film Sigfrido in 1957. He went on to work with such Giallo luminaries as Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento (the “Big Three”), before finding work in American productions, first on shoestring projects for Andy Warhol and later on big-budget Hollywood movies like 1976′s King Kong (he received a Special Achievement Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards for designing the gorilla effects), Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, and Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979, for which he won his second of three Oscars for creating that stunning mechanical alien head based off H.R. Giger’s designs. He hasn’t been credited on a film in about 15 years, but it goes without saying that his contributions will continue to live on in the popular imagination.

Tom Savini

Notable Credits: Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Maniac, Creepshow, Day of the Dead

When it comes to sliced body parts and painfully realistic-looking wounds (usually the result of kitchen knives, gnashing teeth, or some other such slasher or zombie-movie implement), there are very few who can top the sheer ingenuity of Tom Savini’s gore effects, and certainly none who can deny the influence he’s had on an entire generation of young makeup effects artists. Much of what made his work so realistic was his preference for using real live actors over dummies, using what he has termed “magic tricks” to achieve the desired effect on the viewer. A frequent actor, one of his most memorable and notorious gags remains the “headshot” in Maniac, where his own character gets a shotgun blast right to the face – and we are treated to the gory, slo-mo aftermath. Unlike most makeup artists, Savini’s artistry was actually informed by real-life experiences, following a stint as a combat photographer in Vietnam in the late ’60s. As a result he came to understand the non-Hollywood-ized details of actual death. As he once stated in an interview: “Some people die with one eye open and one eye half-closed, sometimes people die with smiles on their faces.” A horrible legacy transformed into great art.

Dick Smith

Notable Credits: The Exorcist, The Sentinel, Altered States, Scanners, The Hunger

Probably best known for his groundbreaking work on The Exorcist, the completely self-taught Dick Smith – often called the godfather of modern-day special effects makeup – pioneered the technique of applying foam latex prosthetics in several small bits rather than as one solid piece, which allowed for a greater range of facial expression in the actors and gave the makeup a more natural appearance on screen. This method is still in standard use by special effects makeup artists today, which is no small thing considering he invented it in the 1960s. The Oscar winner – who received the award not for a horror film but his work on Amadeus – also engineered one of the greatest single special effects shots in history with the “exploding head” in Scanners, achieved spectacularly by filling a prosthetic head with dog food and rabbit livers and blowing it up with a shotgun blast. He also famously served as a mentor to future master Rick Baker (among others), who once opined that he felt guilty for winning a Best Special Effects Oscar (for An American Werewolf in London) prior to Smith: “I was embarrassed [in 1982] when I received an Oscar before Dick – he was the master!”

Chris Walas

Notable Credits: Scanners, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, The Fly, Naked Lunch

While not as well-known or prolific as contemporaries like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Stan Winston, Chris Walas is every bit their equal in terms of creating skin-crawling makeup effects, mainly in a run of excellent horror/sci-fi films in the late ’80s/early ’90s. His first major credits were working with Dick Smith on the early David Cronenberg effort Scanners, as well as on Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (he was mainly responsible for the extremely memorable face-melting/head-exploding effects in the climactic scene). He went on to work with Cronenberg on The Fly – in one of the greatest/most disgusting transformations in movie history – for which he won a well-deserved Oscar, and worked with the director again when he helped create the bizarre, hallucinatory “body-horror” effects in Naked Lunch. He turned to directing in 1989 with The Fly II, which was less-successful than its predecessor but nevertheless served as a spectacular showcase for his effects work. His most famous contribution to cinema was probably in designing and creating the titular characters in Joe Dante’s Gremlins, puppets that were notoriously difficult to work with during production but came off beautifully on screen.

Stan Winston

Notable Credits: The Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Jurassic Park

While his most famous collaborations were with director James Cameron – he won acclaim for bringing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg character to life in The Terminator before going on to create the extraordinary, 14-foot-tall Alien Queen in Aliens – Stan Winston worked with many of the biggest directors in Hollywood during his nearly 40-year-long career. His collaborations read like a virtual laundry list of A-list helmers – Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg (he created the incredible live-action dinosaurs in Jurassic Park), Neil Jordan, John Carpenter, Michael Bay…and the list goes on. He also took to directing for 1988′s Pumpkinhead, a cult classic creature feature that, if nothing else, introduced one of the most underrated monsters in movie history. At the end of the day his greatest gift was in bringing non-human characters to living, breathing life on-screen, his contention always being that his brand of effects was all about “performance” over visual trickery. He sadly died of multiple myeloma at the age of 62 in 2008, but left behind a legacy that will endure as long as movies exist.