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inmates in prison, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was a game-changing music video. It was 14 minutes long, told a self-contained story and marked the first time a major Hollywood director tackled a music video. It had a Tony-winning choreographer, an Oscar winning makeup man and a multiple Grammy winning lead. Thriller was also the first video to have an hour-long documentary made about it, the first documentary I ever saw. I must have watched it 17 million times in 1983, about 2 million times less than its subject.
In 1983, Michael Jackson was everywhere. It’s hard for the younger generation to grasp how big he was, because by the time they came along, Mike was looking far worse than the zombie he portrayed in the Thriller video. As teenagers, my cousins and I thought he was a little weird, bringing chimps to the Grammys and wearing one glove, but there was also an undying adoration. The man could sing, he could dance, and he knew how to take over the show and own it. When he did the moonwalk on Motown 25, roofs blew off houses in the ‘hood. It wasn’t that we’d never seen it before—as a breakdancer I’d been moonwalking before Jackson claimed it as his own—it was that he was doing something we hoodrats were doing, showing it to the world with a mastery of which we could only dream.
greatest beat Jackson ever wrote. Until the Thriller video, I was lukewarm toward Rod Temperton’s composition about watching scary movies. I thought the best thing about it was the Vincent Price part. By 12, I’d become quite partial to Price courtesy of Channel 9’s Fright Night. I had yet to discover that the gory movies I kept sneaking into were also avenues to some serious physical closeness with the opposite sex during the gross parts.
Director John Landis knew all about that; in 1981 he made An American Werewolf in London, a film chock full of moments designed to get your girl to scream and bury her head in your, um, chest. My cousins and I snuck into that, much like we’d done the year before for Landis’ The Blues Brothers. Werewolf became something of a classic, a favorite of many people including Michael Jackson. His album was no longer on the top of the charts and he was trying to get some attention. Landis’ film convinced Jackson to seek him out to direct a third video from the Thriller album. To the finished product, Landis delivered the same loosey-goosey gruesomeness found in Werewolf, using that film’s Oscar winning makeup artist, Rick Baker, to bring an eerie prescience to Jackson’s visage.
They’re Coming To Get You Barbara” moment into a musical number. As he sings about “something evil lurking in the dark,” he and his lady share an easy, flirtatious chemistry. This is foreplay, to be sure, but not the kind that ends with anyone showing their “See You Next Tuesday.” Instead, as the lovebirds walk home, zombies of all shapes and sizes leave their graves looking for dinner. Once surrounded, the girl realizes that she too has been walking with a zombie. Even though it turns out to be a dream, things don’t end well for her.
Of course, no plot description can do justice to the sheer joy of watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I hadn’t seen the video in years, but when I sat down to watch it tonight, I knew it would hold up. Landis strikes the right atmospheric note, from his 50’s horror movie parody (complete with intentionally kinda cheap looking makeup) to the emergence of the realistically gruesome undead. Landis walks a fine line between the morbid and the amusing (one zombie’s arm falls off mid-walk), but he doesn’t sink to mockery. His straight-ahead presentation of the horrible events of the night keep things from getting silly when the dance of the undead begins. I especially love the moment when Ray, surrounded by the zombies, realizes that her paramour has become one of them. The camera spins around to reveal Rick Baker’s makeup on Jackson, and Landis’ shot of Ray feels like falling into a nightmare.
George Folsey Jr. and Malcolm Campbell edit Landis’ extensive coverage of the proceedings. Michael Peters, fresh off a Tony for choreographing Dreamgirls, collaborates with Jackson to create the funkiest dead people in history. Rick Baker’s makeup effects and Deborah Nadoolman’s costuming make the dancers literally funky, their dusty and decrepit bodies in thrall to the music. That it doesn’t look silly, even by today’s standards, is a testament to the talent at hand.
Without a doubt, this is the best video ever made. You know you wanna watch it, so I’m giving it to you below. But I warn you, if you’re my age, it’s going to make you feel old. Damn old. The Thriller album is 30. Remember that. It’s thirty.