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Review: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983)

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983)

Directed by: John Landis

Premise: A fourteen-minute music video for Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller.” In a prologue sequence, a young man turns into a werewolf. This is revealed to be a movie being watched by Michael Jackson and his date (Ola Ray). Frightened by the movie, they walk the streets only to be besieged by zombies.

What Works: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video is a love letter to scary movies and in particular the fun of being scared. Although there are some frightening images in this video, “Thriller” has the good heartedness of a “clean scare” as it pays homage to the drive-in monster films of the 1950s like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and zombie movies like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The success of “Thriller” is attributable to the impressive roster of talent who worked on it. One of the skills of highly successful artists in collaborative art forms is the ability to network with other talented people and bring their skills to bear on a shared creative vision. Michael Jackson did this in his music but also in his videos which were (and still are) astounding pieces of showmanship. The “Thriller” music video was directed by John Landis, who had helmed the musical comedy The Blues Brothers but also the horror picture An American Werewolf in London. Landis’ talents coalesce in “Thriller;” the short demonstrates Landis’ knowledge of cinema as well as his sense of humor and delight for scary movies. Joining Landis in this venture was special effects makeup artist Rick Baker who had created the ground breaking transformation sequence of An American Werewolf in London. Baker was one of the best in the business during the renaissance in special effects makeup that occurred in the 1980s and his craftsmanship is apparent in the zombies and especially in Jackson’s werewolf transformation. While creating the song “Thriller,” Michael Jackson had recruited Vincent Price who was the horror genre’s most distinguished actor throughout the 1960s. He was mostly known for adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories such as House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum. Price’s narration recalls an earlier era of the horror film that gives the video a feeling that is both retro and contemporary. It’s also worth mentioning that the incidental music of “Thriller” was composed by Elmer Bernstein who had scored such classics as The Ten Commandments and the original Magnificent Seven. The incidental music is effective and mixes seamlessly with Jackson’s pop song. The choreography of “Thriller” was organized by Michael Peters and for years the elaborate zombie dance routine was imitated on dance floors around Halloween. At the center of all this talent is Michael Jackson. The controversies and rumors that dogged Jackson in his later years tended to overshadow his work but “Thriller” is a reminder of just how impressive he was as a personality and a performer. And that’s another interesting aspect of this video. As a media artifact, “Thriller” is a time capsule of a particular period and yet it doesn’t feel especially dated. As a work from 1983, “Thriller” represents horror films and popular music at a turning point. After “Thriller” the music video would never be the same and this short was an early sign of the playful direction that the horror genre would take throughout the rest of the 1980s.

What Doesn’t: There is one caveat about “Thriller” for those who take their horror seriously. The short cobbles together a lot of different horror iconography but that’s all it does. Several of the motion pictures that “Thriller” draws from were subversive and penetrated the audience’s subconscious. “Thriller” never seeks to do more than entertain—which is fine—but as a result it remains on the surface. It also doesn’t make a lot of internal sense but then again most music videos don’t. There was a documentary about the making of “Thriller” that was broadcast on cable television in 1983 and was released on VHS. The documentary provided a fun look behind the scenes of “Thriller” and included input from most of the major contributors. Unfortunately, The Making of “Thriller” has not been issued on any digital format.

DVD extras: The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the Thriller album includes a DVD that features the “Thriller” music video. The video can also be seen (legally and for free) online.

Bottom Line: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” remains a remarkable piece of craftsmanship. The short opened up new possibilities for the music video genre and in many respects it has never been surpassed. It’s also a fun tribute to horror films and the fun of being scared.

Episode: #614 (October 2, 2016)