Were it not for his untimely death, Michael Jackson would have turned 60 this past August. That said, his music remains relevant, including the best-selling 1983 album and single, Thriller. Most notably, the “Thriller” music video remains among the best of all time. Between the song, the production value, and the energy that Jackson brings, it’s a masterwork when it comes to short films, and horror filmmaking, let alone music videos put together as a way to both sell more albums and entertain fans.
Because the world sometimes finds the strangest ways to create joy, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” has been remastered for IMAX 3D and will be playing for one week only in front of IMAX screenings of The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Inspired by the exceptional experience of seeing “Thriller” on a giant IMAX screen, I decided to go over the reasons why this short film from Jackson and director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London) is one of the greatest horror films ever made.
1. It’s Scary
You may not think it now, but, as I mention in my review for House with a Clock in Its Walls, I first saw “Thriller” on TV as a young boy, and it terrified me. While watching “Thriller” in IMAX, a young boy ran out of the theater crying. This music video works in the scares department, and why shouldn’t it? It begins with Michael Jackson’s transformation into a werecat and terrorizing model Ola Ray. Ray goes on to be terrorized again by a zombified Jackson, joined by a crew of dance-ready zombies. I don’t know about you, but if I were standing in the street, facing a team of zombies going through an elaborately choreographed number, while they stare directly at me, I’d be ready to run in the other direction. This isn’t Step Up; this is “Thriller.” Once Ray does run, she finds herself stuck in a house, as zombies break down the doors and bash through the floors. It’s doom for Michael’s girl, and that can be terrifying.
2. It Has A Great Soundtrack (Obviously)
♪ ‘Cause this is thriller, thriller night, and no one’s gonna save you from the beast about to strike. ♪
“Thriller” is not just a great Halloween-themed song, it’s a terrific song in general. It’s so good, the music video could rearrange all of the lyrics, so each verse proceeds the next, before having an extended version of the main chorus accompany the ghoulish dancing. Composed by Rod Temperton and produced by Quincy Jones, it has everything to make for a party hit. It also has a lot of horrific elements in it. There are sound effects such as creaking doors, thunder, violent winds, and howling dogs. There’s also a great voice-over that I’ll go into later. But that’s not all! In addition to Jackson’s single, the “Scary Music” also featured in the short film was composed by Oscar-winner Elmer Bernstein, who does plenty to add to the fun vibe of the opening werecat segment.
3. Does Any Horror Movie Have Better Dancing?
Suspiria may be set at a ballet academy, Leatherface may have his chainsaw jig at the end of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Prom Night may feature a whole lot of disco, but “Thriller” is the epitome of great dance numbers in horror films. When you have Michael Jackson giving his all to one of his short films, it’s going to be impressive. Jackson and Michael Peters choreographed the whole zombie dance sequence, and it’s incredible. Everyone is well aware of the “Thriller” dance, even if they only know how to raise their hands in the air and creep around to the left and right. However, there’s so much to what’s happening. The footwork is wonderful. The movements are incredibly precise. Jackson can do so much more than moonwalk, and this video is just one of the many examples. And how about the cutaway to the freestyle zombies doing their own thing? This music video is jam-packed with monsters that like to groove and look good doing it.
4. It’s Several Horror Movies in One
Why make one horror movie, when you can make a bunch? “Thriller” opens as the perfect setup for a campfire tale, as the 1950s couple runs out of gas while driving around the woods. Then it becomes full on body horror, as Jackson morphs into some sort of creature, as he violently moans. Suddenly we’re in a Universal monster movie, as Jackson has turned into a werecat and chases after Ola Ray. Then it’s a pre-Scream meta-horror film, as it turns out we’re watching Jackson and Ray watching themselves in a movie theater. And finally, we have a full-on zombie movie. Talk about layers, twists, and turns. Cabin in the Woods could barely keep up with all the horror shenanigans Jackson was pulling back in ’83.
5. It Features Incredible Make-Up & Special Effects
An American Werewolf in London premiered in the summer of 1981 and featured Oscar-winning make-up effects that I’ve yet to see be topped when it comes to amazing (and disturbing) werewolf transformations. Jackson, a huge cinephile (if that wasn’t obvious), had to contact director John Landis and make him aware that “Thriller” needed to be a big spectacle of a music video, with a focus on horror. Imagine that phone call, where Michael Jackson is talking to you about wanting to go through the whole make-up process to be turned into a zombie and a werecat, and make it look amazing. Jackson got his wish, as the monster designs by Rick Baker & EFX, Inc. in this short film are incredible. “Thriller” is coming only a few years after George A. Romero’s first two entries in the zombie genre (that he created), and what this music video may lack in gore, it makes up for in design work and an overall creepiness factor. Add to that a pre-Teen Wolf werecat that runs around in a varsity jacket, and I’d say you have some very memorable imagery on your hands.
6. Vincent Price!
A legendary staple of the horror genre, Vincent Price provides the spoken word performance of “Rap,” which serves as the voice-over narration for the song and video. Quincy Jones’ former wife, Peggy Lipton, knew Price and was able to convince him to add his vocals to the song. It works there, and it easily works in the short film. And why wouldn’t it? Price has such an interesting presence; it only makes sense that a music video/horror film that features werecats and dance-crazy zombies would be underscored by the narration of the noted gourmet cook who helped bring us House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler.
7. It Doesn’t Waste Any Time
“Thriller” is 14-minutes, including the closing credits. It begins mid-date, before jumping to the second beginning of a mid-date story. We don’t need to waste time watching Jackson convince Ray to go out on a date with him. There’s no origin story for how he became a werecat or a zombie. We get a simple setup, and it’s off to the races. That’s the joy and challenge of short films, working with a time constraint to effectively build a narrative. Landis and Jackson may have had a lot of fun collaborating on the project and coming up with the ways to make a scary film out of a 6-minute song, but the result was a wonderful horror flick that gets to the point right away.
8. It Goes for A Dark Ending
After all hell has broken loose, and Ola Ray is trapped in a house, about to be devoured by zombie Jackson and his horde of undead backup dancers, she is awakened by normal Michael, peeling back the final layer of the dream. But was it all a dream? As the two walk out of the house (possibly to go on the same date that leads to the whole zombie scenario creating a Michael Jackson’s Groundhog Day situation that I would have loved to see), Jackson turns to the camera and reveals his yellow werecat eyes! Vincent Price’s bone-chilling laugh echoes during this scene, as it appears there’s no escaping terror for Michael’s girl. This allows “Thriller” to join the likes of Carrie and Friday the 13th in terms of horror that doesn’t quit just when you think you are safe.
9. Even the Credits Are Amazing (and Scary)
As if all was said and done in the official music video, the end credits not only reveal what brilliant filmmakers were behind the making of “Thriller,” but they also unfold over a replay of the awesome dance scenes that were just shown. And what else would you want to show? It’s a great reprise of the music, accompanied by additional shots of zombie dancing, what’s not to love? And that’s not all! Along with the disclaimer that reads, “Any similarity to actual events or persons living, dead, (or undead) is purely coincidental,” one final section shows a few more zombies dancing back to their grave, and one final zombie (Jackson, again), turning towards to the camera and allowing the short film one final scare.
10. It’s as Iconic and Inspiring as John Carpenter’s Halloween
In addition to winning multiple Grammy’s and MTV Video Music Awards, “Thriller” was also selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. More importantly, who doesn’t know “Thriller?” It’s the most-watched music video of all time. It played in sold-out theaters for weeks (part of a re-issue with Fantasia for short-film Oscar consideration) and has come back to theaters, as reason enough to go and see it again. “Thriller” revolutionized music videos by instantly achieving iconic status. Jackson was at the top of his game at this point and used that power to make something ambitious and memorable. It’s inspired so much of pop culture through the costume design, use of make-up, and, of course, the dancing. There’s a reason “Thriller” is referenced in everything from major motion pictures to viral wedding videos. It holds a status not too dissimilar from many classic horror films that came out around the same time and continues to hold up to this day. Why? ‘Cause this is “Thriller.”