The Thrill of “Thriller”
Although it’s been well over a year now, it’s still hard to believe that we are living in a world without Michael Jackson. He was the star of stars, a pop icon that only comes once in a lifetime. The music and dance moves he showcased were a revelation that has continued to influence the artists of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Ask any dancer who one of their biggest idols are, and it would be safe to assume that the majority of them would say Michael. In 1983, Michael was already a musical superstar with the Jackson 5, but he would cement his legend with a music video that was more than just a music video, it was also a short horror film. That short film, of course, was Thriller.
I remember, as a little kid growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Thriller would scare the crap out of me. With its ominous music, special effects, and make up, it freaked me out whenever I watched it. As everyone was dancing to the music and watching the intricate choreography, I was busy shielding my eyes, or escaping in to the other room. Yes, maybe you can say that I was a sissy back in the day. And well…maybe I was.
To talk about Thriller, we have to go back and talk about a famous horror movie, An American Werewolf in London (1981), directed by John Landis. Michael was known to be a big movie fan, and was looking for a director to bring his vision of a horror movie music video of his hit song to life. After watching Landis’ movie about an American visitor attacked by, and ultimately cursed to become a werewolf, Michael knew that he had found his man. He immediately got in contact with Landis, commended him for his film, and asked him to direct his music video. Having the chance to work with the world’s most popular entertainer, Landis did the obvious thing and accepted. The rest, as they say, is history.
The music video/short film is just as much of a work by Landis as it is a work of Jackson, you can clearly see the director’s hand in the style and execution of it. Take for example the opening scene, where we see Jackson and his date (Ola Ray) stuck in the middle of the woods after their car breaks down. After a short walk and conversation between them, we see a full moon appear out of the sky, and then all of a sudden Michael falls to his knees, and begins his painful transformation in to a werewolf. The way his face contorts, his ears grow, and his fingers elongate, is done nearly identically to the way David Naughton’s character transforms in An American Werewolf.
But the fun doesn’t end there. After the first scene the video then turns in to a zombie movie. The scene features Michael, in his now iconic red leather jacket, walking with Ola Ray through the city streets, and then across a graveyard. Then, accompanied by the narration of acting legend Vincent Price, we see the living dead rise out of their coffins and tombs. Now, despite this film primarily only being a music video, the way the zombies look here is just as good as any other feature length zombie movie out there. Look at Michael’s face when he becomes one of the zombies, with is face green and decaying, his eyes sunken in to his skull. At the time, Thriller was the most expensive music video ever made; it appears every cent was put to good use here, as each of the zombies had their own unique look. Add to that the moment where the music pumps up and they all break out in to the now famous choreography, and you have something here that is unique, exciting, and just plain awesome.
When released on home video, it was accompanied with a documentary titled The Making of ‘Thriller’ (1983). In it, we get to see both Jackson and Landis’ process in making this hit video. We see the make up being applied to all the actors and dancers, we get to learn the origin of the song, and witness background footage of the film being shot. One of the more interesting parts of the documentary was seeing all of the dancers, including Michael, rehearse the choreography at a dance studio. We actually get to see Michael create the dance steps with his choreography partner, and practice the moves with the other performers. Landis, being the director that he is, insisted that the rehearsal stage last at least two weeks, unheard of at the time for music videos. We see him supervising the dancers, stressing for them to perform with their faces as much as their bodies. It’s interesting, and also kind of amusing, to see everyone perform this dance outside of their make up and costumes, with their faces trying to be as spooky and scary as possible. I wonder how many of them realized just how influential their performances would be in the years to come. As a result of the popularity of both the video and the song itself, the home video release of Thriller became the biggest selling VHS musical of the time.
I think, looking back on it, what makes Thriller one of the most famous music videos of all time is that it’s a combination of music and filmmaking at it’s highest caliber. It’s not just a music video featuring an artist performing their song, but it’s approached and executed the same way that a feature-length film would be. The fact that it based itself around the horror genre, it has staked itself for repeated viewings in the Halloween seasons to come. Michael Jackson was an innovator of popular music, always trying to evolve and never settling for the routine. He always wanted to do something new, something fresh, something that hasn’t been done before. With Thriller, he took a risk with both his music and his reputation. But with high risk comes high reward, and Michael achieved it beyond anyone’s expectations.