It is impossible to read the title of today’s article without humming Thriller, one of the most famous songs of the King of Pop Michael Jackson!
And it is equally impossible not to remember the video that accompanied the song. Even the stones have seen it and, if we want to go further, someone has even emulated (with various results) the choreography that accompanies it. I admit I did it myself during the March lockdown … luckily there is no evidence to prove it!
Today 2 November, on the occasion of the anniversary of the release of the Thriller video, we will tell you everything including various extremely curious anecdotes. It was from the days of Enjoy the Silence or Stand Inside Your Love we haven’t talked about images in music that made history, so here we are!
The importance of Thriller video
Thriller is considered a sort of forerunner of music videos as we conceive them today because, at the time, it was the first to have a plot, well-characterized characters, a choreography and a production budget (as if it were a real own short film).
Until then, so until 1983, music videos were a succession of images that accompanied the song, but not much more. And it was Michael Jackson who wanted the videos to become a kind of short film. So much so that, in various interviews, Jackson refused to call them videos, preferring instead the expression “short film”.
And luckily the King of Pop believed so much in the Thriller short film that he wanted to pay for it out of his own pocket because the producers didn’t really want to invest in this ambitious and millionaire project. But why didn’t they want to invest?
The story goes that Michael Jackson saw the movie An American Werewolf in London and that he fell in love with it so much that he wanted to transpose something horror-style into music. The idea did not thrill his record company, Epic Records, which considered it absurd to make a very expensive video a year after the release of the album.
And luckily Jackson eventually had the video made … and he also called John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London to film it. Never was the choice more effective!
The beginning of Thriller
Protagonist of the video is Michael Jackson who, together with a girl (model and actress Ola Ray) is driving to the countryside when the petrol runs out. The two find themselves on foot and, as they walk, he asks her to be his girlfriend, giving her a ring.
He also claims to be different from others, but she does not give importance to this sentence, replying that she loves him as he is. At one point, when the full moon peeps out, the protagonist turns into a werewolf, telling the girl to run away to save herself from him.
The girl begins to run through the woods, chased by the wolf who joins her in an anxious scene. This scene, however, turns out to be a “video within the video”, a horror film projected in the hall of a cinema in the eighties in which, in the audience, we see Michael Jackson with his girlfriend (the same as in the film).
Jackson appears quiet and munches popcorn while the girl is agitated, so much so that she eventually exits the theater hall. Jackson joins her outside the theater to tell her to calm down, that it was just a movie, but she leaves.
The dance of the macabre and the end of the story
At that point Michael joins her and begins to sing verses of the song to her and dance around her, so she takes heart and starts walking with him hand in hand. The two pass by a cemetery, where a voice (that of actor Vincent Price, whom I believe you will remember as the “creator” of Edward Scissorhands) accompanies a scene where zombies come out of the graves. The choice of November 2 is very appropriate, it would also be the day of the commemoration of the dead … here in a zombie way!
However, the pair don’t notice anything until the zombies surround them. The couple tries not to be touched, but when the girl turns away, boyfriend Jackson has the dry skin and sunken eyes typical of zombies (and those who wake up in the morning reluctantly to go to work!).
She runs away and Michael and the zombies begin to dance to the chorus of the song. At the end of the dance, the girl takes refuge in an abandoned house and closes everything, but the zombies still manage to reach her. The desperate girl closes her eyes and screams. But, when she opens them again, she finds her boyfriend who is normal in the same room and holds out his hand to her: we realize that it was just a nightmare.
At the end of the story Michael and the girl hug and he tells her that he will take her home. In one memorable scene, he turns to the camera with a mischievous smile: he has yellow eyes and vertical pupils, like the werewolf at the beginning of the video. It all ends, as in the audio version of the album, with Vincent Price’s laugh and the credits. A masterpiece!
Trivia on Thriller video
Could we not tell you some anecdotes about one of the most famous videos in history? Here are some cool trivia!
- The famous red leather jacket worn by Jackson in the video is the most expensive pop star dress in the world. It was estimated at 1.8 million dollars. Made by Marc Laurent, it is kept at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills.
- The opening title (“Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to point out that this film in no way supports faith in the occult”) was inserted because of the Jackson’s faith. Michael’s mother, Katherine was a devoted Jehovah’s Witness. When she learned that her son was supposed to work with Ola Ray (who plays the girlfriend), she was immediately reluctant, due to Ray’s past as a Playmate.
- The truth is, Thriller is about adolescence. “During this time, young people grow hair in unexpected places and parts of their anatomy swell and grow,” said director John Landis, explaining the werewolf metaphor in film history. “Everyone experiences these physical transformations in their bodies and new unfamiliar sexual thoughts in their minds”. In other words, undergoing a werewolf transformation was a way for Michael Jackson to experience puberty. As did the human nature metaphors of the authors of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.
- On November 14, 1983, Thriller was shown to a private audience at the Crest Theater in L.A. Celebrities included Diana Ross, Warren Beatty, Prince and Eddie Murphy. Jackson remained in the projection booth, refusing Ola Ray’s invitation to join the audience. The audience even gave a standing ovation. At Murphy’s insistence, the video was shown again. Perhaps Eddie had identified himself with the protagonist of the video for the red leather outfit that reminds us of the very famous Murphy’s Delirius special of the same year.
The video won 2 Grammy Awards in 1985, 3 MTV Awards at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards (first edition of the well-known awards). It was also voted one of the “100 Greatest Music Videos of All Time” by MTV viewers in 1999.
In 2009, the video was chosen to be kept in the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress.
In October 2018 it was awarded as “Best video clip of the last 50 years” by Imaginaction, the first festival dedicated to video clips at an international level.
Thriller in mass culture
And it is no wonder that the video, in addition to receiving all these awards, has become part of mass culture. Let’s take some examples:
- In a Halloween special from The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa try to revive their dead cat with a magic spell, but accidentally wake the dead from the nearby cemetery. During the spell Bart wears the Thriller album cover on his head like a hat.
- Some episodes of the cartoon South Park, show Chef, turned into a zombie, with a red and black jacket, dances the choreography of Thriller and sings the song, but with a different text.
- In the video clip of the song Clint Eastwood by Gorillaz the apes / zombies of the video dance the choreography of the Thriller video
- Among the bonus inserts on the Final Fantasy DVD movie, the entire cast of the film dances the zombie dance
- Lady Gaga mentions some passages from the Thriller video in the choreography of Bad Romance video
- In 2016, US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama danced the song with students at a Halloween event at the White House.
And, again to talk about “mass” culture, how can we forget the multitude of people who try Thriller’s zombie dance routine? According to the Guinness Book of Records there were even 13,597 at an event in Mexico City, on August 29, 2009. This is the date of Michael Jackson’s birthday, who had passed away a few months earlier.
I hope everyone will be back to dance together soon, close, en masse, as this period has too many thriller elements. I, strictly after learning the choreography (well, this time) will wear these socks!
Seriously, Thriller video did more than just getting people together. It helped dismantle racial barriers for black artists, revolutionized music video production, and popularized documentary making on the subject. It allowed video content to become more sophisticated, with the addition of articulate storylines and complex choreography.
All of this is Thriller, and not only intimidating, it really freaks you out!