Before I begin this, let me do a preface similar to the Thriller video that I’m not a fan of Michael Jackson following the sexual abuse allegations. I also think John Landis should have taken more responsibility for his actions. Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese child actors lost their lives 40 years ago because Landis didn’t follow California child labor laws. And I’ve always been questioning Jackson’s behavior ever since the first sexual abuse allegations serviced in 1993.
That being said, the music video to Thriller changed the way music videos would be made. They were the first to produce a music video. Musicians and signs had been making them for years, decades even. But mostly, they were done as promotional videos. You’d having Nancy Sinatra and some other women in go go boots singing and dancing to “These Boots are Made for Walking.”
But Thriller mixes elements of horror and metafiction in with performing and dancing. The beginning has Jackson and former Playboy Playmate Ola Ray in a convertible when it runs out of gas in a secluded area. They look like the typical teeny-bopper kids as Jackson has a letterman jacket and Ray has a dress and her hair in a ponytail. As they walk around in the woods, Jackson says he’s “not like other guys.”
Suddenly, the moon comes out and he doubles over. He growls at her to “Go away!” and his eyes are yellow. Suddenly, he begins to transform into a cat creature and chase her down and just when we think he’s going to rip her to shreds, we cut to a full movie theater where an audience jumps in terror. It turns out that Jackson and Ray are a couple among the audience watching. Jackson is having a good time as he eats popcorn but Ray doesn’t like it and gets up and walks out. Jackson follows her out.
Outside the theater, the music begins and he begins to sing to her the lyrics to “Thriller” as they walk down the street. Then, they pass by a cemetery and we hear Vincent Price’s voice delivering a rap verse as zombies crawl out of the ground and tombs. As the zombies surround them, it seems they are cornered.
But suddenly Jackson is a zombie himself and then they begin to dance and move to the music until she runs toward a house with the zombies following her inside. As they surrounded her, a hand grabs her and then it switches to daytime and everything seems normal. Jackson says he’s going to take her home and as they leave he turns toward the camera to show his eyes are yellow as Price cackles over the soundtrack.
Without a doubt, the video took things to the next level. Why just have the musician or singer perform when you can throw a story in the mix? Does anything in Thriller make sense? Not really. The constant changing from a horror movie to a movie-in-a-movie then the “It was just a dream or was it?” ending can get a little cliche.
Part of what works is the special effects and make-up don’t come up short. Rick Baker who won the first ever Best Make-Up Oscar for his work on Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, also works on the special effects and make-up here. Baker also appears as one of the zombies. It looks like a horror short. And the video jumbles around the lyrics and pacing. Price’s rap verse is at the end of the song on the album and radio play but here it appears halfway through. But the video’s dance choreography has become iconic as it’s in perfect sync with the music.
Produced on a modest budget of $500,000 for the time, the video also took advantage of the home video market and earned $900,000 in sales as well as repeated airplay in MTV right at the time when there was mostly music videos on the channel. Jackson had contacted Landis solely because of his popularity following An American Werewolf in London and hadn’t seen any of his other works.
However, there were problems. Since Jackson and his family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, there was some concern that it would go against his family’s religion. Also, there was some concern that people would see it as Jackson endorsing the occult or other evil force. Therefore, a disclaimer was added over the beginning after Jackson came close to preventing its release.
In an attempt to get some more fame, a campaign was started to get it considered an Academy Award nominee for shot film, it got no nomination. But the legacy beyond awards was how it influenced other directors and musicians to have some fun with their music videos. Jackson would work with Martin Scorsese for his “Bad” video and Brian DePalma would go on to direct Bruce Spirngsteen and the E Street Band’s “Dancing in the Dark” video. Other directors such as Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Zack Snyder, Antoine Fuqua and Gore Verbinski to name a few would get their start directing music videos in the 1980s and 1990s.
And some music videos could also tell a story. Look at Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” or Guns N’ Roses “November Rain,” and you have what is basically a short movie along with the lyrics. Or you could just have some silly things happen in music videos. Remember how The Presidents of the United States of America’s “Peaches” turned into the band battling out with ninjas. And Green Day’s “Walking Contradiction” presents a bunch of simple things for the band members turning into major disasters for those around them as they’re oblivious to it.
I don’t even watch MTV anymore so I wouldn’t be able to say if they even show many music videos. I heard they don’t. Most of the music videos have found popularity on the web. Jackson died in 2009 from an accidental overdose caused when given propofol by Dr. Conrad Murray so he could reportedly get some sleep. Landis hasn’t directed a movie in over a decade.
Still, people still enjoy Thriller at any time of the year, not just Halloween.
What do you think? Please comment.