Halloween makes us want to watch scary movies. And while Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” in all of its ’80s gruesome glory, is neither a movie nor scary, its zombie theme earns it a place on the Halloween shelf. But curiously, “Thriller” — the video that changed videos forever — almost had nothing to do with zombies and “grisly ghouls.” Writer Rod Temperton first penned the demo as “Starlight.” How different would things be now if we learned to sing “Starlight! Starlight sun” instead of the catchy “Thriller! In the night?” Quite.
And whosoever shall be found, Without the soul for getting down, Must stand and face the hounds of hell, And rot inside a corpse’s shell.
If you’re above the age of 35, you’ll probably remember the hype around the TV debut of “Thriller” on November 30, 1983 (not on Halloween). And whether you watched its world premiere on MTV or networks broadcasting it throughout the world — or didn’t watch it at all — you knew something special had happened. It was a 14-minute epoch in TV history, what Rolling Stone called a true “watershed” moment for the music industry. Because ”Thriller” was, if anything, a game-changer.
Michael Jackson didn’t want just a music video; he wanted Hollywood grandeur: a full-on motion picture short. He tapped director John Landis for the project, based solely on his film” American Werewolf in London.” Landis agreed, insisting on union workers and proper rehearsal time. All in all, the total cost of the big theatrical endeavor: half a million dollars — a hefty price cleverly paid for by the documentary of its own creation, The Making of Thriller. The end result set the bar for music videos; every musical act looking to chart or secure a spot in pop culture legendry now needed a video.
Remember the “Thriller” storyline? A couple played by Jackson and Ola Ray (Playboy ’s Miss June 1980) are walking through the woods after running out of gas. Jackson stops and asks Ray if she’ll be his girl and then delivers the ominous warning, ”I have something to tell you. I’m not like other guys.” Uh-oh. Cue the full moon, and Jackson transforms into a werewolf. But, deep breath, it’s all just a movie. MJ and Ray leave the theater and, at the 4:13 mark, the song starts.
A playful Jackson sings about thrillers, dancing in the now-iconic red jacket (created by Landis’s wife to help make the 99-pound star look “virile”). Zombies rise up from their “funk of forty-thousand years” (thank you, Vincent Price) and encircle the couple, followed by the infamous ”Thriller” dance, the centerpiece of the show. Fans everywhere memorized the choreography, and whether they zombie-shuffled at home or en masse like the prison inmates in the Philippines, it became a universally recognized shimmy of the undead.
Next month, the video that became one of the most influential pop music videos turns 30. For a Halloween treat, grab some popcorn, sit back and rediscover your inner zombie — ”’Cause this is thriller, thriller night.”
Why you should care
Because if “grisly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom,” it’s time to dance it out.