Making a Monster Hit: Michael Jackson’s Thriller

Thriller made MTV. Thriller created the home video business. Thriller created so many things.”
–John Landis in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video Revolution

Since the advent of MTV in 1981, there has been a steady stream of films by directors who got their start making music videos, but it didn’t take long for that stream to flow in the opposite direction. In 1984 alone, Paul Bartel directed a Christine McVie video, Brian De Palma shot “Dancing in the Dark” for Bruce Springsteen, and Sam Peckinpah wound down his career with a pair of Julian Lennon clips. In time, even Martin Scorsese could be enticed to direct a long-form video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” The most famous example from the channel’s early years, however, was “Thriller.”

The seventh and final single from Jackson’s album of the same name, which was already well on its way to being the best-selling record in history, “Thriller” was surprisingly only the third to get the video treatment. When his record company balked at financing it, Jackson took the bold step of producing it himself, and handpicked John Landis to direct based on his admiration for An American Werewolf in London. The pitch was simple: Jackson wanted to turn into a monster. With the help of Landis’s good friend, makeup effects legend Rick Baker, he was able to do just that.

From its inception, Michael Jackson’s Thriller would be no ordinary video. Having shattered MTV’s color barrier with “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” Jackson worked with Landis to craft a 14-minute short that could – and does – stand on its own. While “Beat It” had the briefest of intros before the song kicks in, “Thriller” starts with the short’s raison d’être, a scene right out of I Was a Teenage Werewolf in which Jackson transforms into a werecat and attacks the girl he’s just given his high school ring to “make it official.” True, he tried to warn her he’s “not like other guys,” but the truth of that only becomes apparent when the moon comes out, accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s music from American Werewolf.

Compared to the transformation in that film, the one Jackson endures is less time- and labor-intensive (it’s over in about 30 seconds), but the final, feral form Baker designed is no less impressive. As Jackson leans in for the kill, Landis cuts to a movie theater audience jumping out of their seats, a rug-pull moment akin to the nested nightmares in American Werewolf, and a sign the viewer, much like Jackson’s spooked date, can’t take anything for granted.

It’s not until Jackson’s girlfriend (Playboy Playmate Ola Ray, who was also in the film-within-the-film) makes them leave that the song finally starts up over a shot of the marquee, revealing they’ve been watching a movie called Thriller starring Vincent Price. (This is the same Los Angeles movie theater where the short had its world premiere a week and a half before its MTV debut.) Rather than play the song straight through, the video puts all three verses back to back while Jackson sings to Ray as they walk down a dark street. Then it transitions to Price’s narration over shots of Baker’s zombies emerging from their graves to surround the terrified couple. Only Ray is truly in danger, though, since the camera turns around to show Jackson is also undead. He briefly reverts to his human form for the song’s chorus, leading the remarkably agile zombies in a dance routine that continues to be emulated by groups of dancers to this day, followed by a siege right out of Night of the Living Dead, a genuinely scary sequence setting up the last fake-out and a final freeze-frame that literally gives Price the last laugh.

With its high production values, movie-quality special effects, and ambitious structure, Thriller was unlike anything seen on MTV in its first two years on the air. Just as An American Werewolf in London alternated between horror and comedy in a way that took audiences by surprise, Thriller represented the union of Jackson’s and Landis’s sensibilities, combining the former’s showmanship and eagerness to entertain with the latter’s unpredictable sense of humor. By demonstrating music videos could be more than just tossed-off advertisements, they set the bar high for all who came after them.

And they didn’t stop there, since the short’s production was documented by a “making of” special that was also sold to television and released on home video. With its candid interviews and glimpses behind the scenes – not to mention the short itself – Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller proved the public’s hunger for all things Michael Jackson was insatiable. From there, he reunited with his brothers for a Victory lap and forged ahead with other music and film projects, including the Disney attraction Captain EO and the feature film Moonwalker.

As for Landis, Thriller capped off a year that also saw the release of Trading Places, one of his biggest hits, and Twilight Zone: The Movie, which came back to haunt him when he was ordered to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter. He still had the massively successful Coming to America ahead of him, though, and a reunion with Jackson for the video for “Black or White,” which was less harmonious than their first collaboration. By the time that came along in 1991, he was dealing with a very different Michael Jackson.

“Michael Jackson’s Thriller” isn’t on any streaming service, but it’s not hard to dig up if you go looking.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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