"No mere mortal can resist the evil of the Thriller..."
Like any life-changing event, most everyone alive (and old enough) on December 2nd, 1983 remembers the exact moment when MTV aired the world premiere of Michael Jackson's Thriller – the legendary long-form music video directed by John Landis and based on the King of Pop's chart-busting 1982 single and album of the same name. In my case, I was lingering over a tiny television set in my bedroom, a primitive Betamax (remember those?) already spinning its spools to record the airing as I eagerly counted down those final minutes.
For most horror-loving kids of my day, whether they were into his moonwalking majesty or not, there was a definite fascination with the song “Thriller” itself, which I'd first heard in a record store that Summer. At the time, being only marginally aware of Michael's works, I wasn't exactly intimate with the new album... but when Vincent Price's now-legendary final soliloquy came creeping through the speakers at the track's climax, I suddenly forgot why I was in the store in the first place. By the time Price's terrifying madman's laugh finished echoing through the aisles, I was handing over a chunk of my lawn-mowing earnings in exchange for the Thriller LP. Needless to say, I played the hell out of the title tune, memorizing and transcribing Price's gothic rhymes (I still smile when I hear the words “...to terrorize y'all's neighborhood”) and annoying the hell out of my parents in the process.
When word began circulating through school that a short horror movie based on the song was coming to MTV (back when their logo still proudly spelled out the words “Music Television,” and they actually meant it) in December, I was completely stunned... and secretly scared. At the time, my fragile young brain was still treading very lightly into the world of monsters – which I'd first glimpsed breathlessly between entwined fingers on the local Creature Feature show and now studied diligently in the pages of Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland – so my imagination was working overtime, pondering the creepy possibilities that such a film could offer. The suspense grew to feverish levels as TV and magazines (remember, no Internet for us kids back then) offered a few teasing glimpses of the terrors to come... and then, finally, the moment arrived. While I didn't exactly know it at the time, the world of music, media and pop culture were about to change forever.
It's a foregone conclusion that you've seen the nearly 14-minute film in its entirety at least once, so I won't recap it here. Instead, why not watch it again for old times' sake?
Now that it's fresh in your mind again, I'll review a few bits of info that hardcore Thriller fans probably already know – but some of which I didn't hear about until long after that fateful day in 1983:
For the now-iconic zombie dance routine, FX legend Rick Baker had very little time to create prosthetic appliances for the dancers, who were hired fairly late in the production schedule. To save time, he used several prosthetic molds left over from prior projects (allegedly including some “Zombie Jack” pieces from Landis's An American Werewolf in London), while creating elaborate new appliances for foreground “hero” zombies.
Photo: Classic Movie Monsters
Speaking of hero zombies, check out that last ghoul who turns to glare at the camera at the end of the closing credits. Look closely... that's Vincent Price himself!
While we're on the subject... did you know there's more to Vinnie's rap than ended up on the song and video? There's an entire verse that was cut from the final recording, and you can hear excerpts from that studio session below (including an unused introduction by Price and Jackson):
Observant horror fans may notice another connection to An American Werewolf in London: if you compare Michael's "werecat" transformation in the opening sequence with David Naughton's legendary wolf-out scene two years earlier, you'll notice that many of the monster's growls, howls and other grotesque noises seem familiar... and that's because Landis borrowed most of those sound effects from American Werewolf.
The disclaimer which precedes the film, asserting that Jackson does not endorse any beliefs in the occult, was added to appease the Jehovah's Witnesses, of which Jackson was a member at the time. It didn't really work, and he later issued a panicked public apology to church leaders, even attempting to restrict international distribution and promotion of the film. (That didn't work either.)
Shortly after Jackson's death in 2009, Thriller became the first music video to be chosen for the National Film Registry. Representatives of the Library of Congress cited its historic value and its status as the most famous and influential music video of all time.
The full impact of the video on popular culture – particularly the zombie dance scene – is too massive to detail here, thanks to hundreds of homages, satires and other references in just about every form of media. But the more noteworthy examples include this famous viral video from the Philippines, which shows a group of 1500 inmates at a high-security prison recreating the memorable choreography. The dance was part of an exercise and morale-boosting program invented by the prison's administrator, who posted the video to YouTube in 2007... and the rest is history. As of this writing, the clip has amassed over 53 million views.
Just one year before that video made headlines, an event called “Thrill Toronto” was created in an effort to stage the world's largest choreographed Thriller dance (62 dancers in all), which succeeded in making the Guinness Book of World Records. It soon went global as a charity event, and “Thrill the World” inspired zombie dance mobs from 17 countries to participate on the video's 25th anniversary. That world record was finally smashed in a major way in 2009, when an eye-popping 13,597 dancers performed the number in Mexico City (shown below):
According to music magazine NME, an elaborate “Thriller” routine set in a graveyard was planned as the closing number in Jackson's “This Is It” concert series in London – which sadly never came to pass, due to the star's death just weeks before opening night.
While Jackson's legacy is many things to many people, Thriller is certainly the single MJ project that transcends the time and circumstances of its creation and rises above the artist's career ups and downs, his troubled personal life, and the criticism and controversy that surrounded him, to ultimately become a cultural landmark that is still beloved by millions around the world. Even three decades after its premiere, it remains a high watermark of style, production quality and old-school scary fun for horror-themed music videos old and new.