H'ween Horrorthon: 'Michael Jackson's Thriller' (1983)
The late King of Pop and his seminal masterpiece made us all dance - like zombies!
"What's the problem? C'mon, I'll take you home."
Michael Jackson to his on-screen girlfriend Ola Ray before turning to camera to reveal his 'cat eyes'.
Hello one and all.
So, this is a first. As part of my Halloween Horrorthon, I always add this gem to my viewing list. Yeah, it's perhaps the one music video I watch religiously around this time. Or...a musical short film as it were. Leave it to none other than Michael Joseph Jackson, the one-time King of Pop to make Halloween fun beyond what it should be.
The song was "Thriller"; the fourth track (and title song); and the seventh single release from his multi-diamond, record-breaking album that catapulted the one-time Jackson 5 star into the superstar stratosphere. His groundbreaking music videos were the template for many R&B, pop, rock artists to follow. Hits like "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" were in constant MTV rotation and even major filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg were considered close friends and colleagues. He would break into the movie stratosphere with this his 13-minute-plus "monster" opus released in December of 1983.
Before I get ahead of myself, I'm not judging Jackson on his music or his contributions to popular music and to the world of dance. I'm judging the one film (however short it was) he made that has become a staple at birthday parties, proms, and even the occasional Halloween costume party and is also the ONE music video short film protected by the U.S. Library of Congress . How did this come about? It all took just a phone call...to horror/comedy director John Landis. Fresh off the success of his Dan Aykroyd/Eddie Murphy comedy "Trading Places". Jackson had been a huge fan of Landis' serio-comic horror film, "An American Werewolf In London" from 1981; the film that broke the mold in its graphic depiction of a man becoming a lycanthrope in sick, painful detail. It seemed that Jackson had wanted to do a parody-of-sorts with his music video. Landis, reluctant to do it at first, was finally hooked and on board. All it needed now, was some really off-the-cliff makeup magic. Who would take up the challenge? Landis' makeup magician on "Werewolf": Rick Baker, who was responsible for films as "The Exorcist", "Squirm", "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back", "Videodrome", "Coming to America" and 'Men In Black" to name a few.
Here's the plot. (Yes, even this music film has one!) We start with a film-within-a-film as Michael Jackson and his sexy young co-star. Playboy model Ola Ray are spoofing 1950's teenager-bobbysoxer-werewolf movies. The car breaks down. They go for a moonlight stroll. Jackson offers Ray a promise ring. It all seems sweet and innocent, until the full moon reveals and Jackson's own lycanthropy takes full effect. His transformation is played mostly for laughs (though there have been some people who were legitimately freaked-out for real), giving us a wink-and-nod to Landis' own "Werewolf". Ray is terrified and runs away, until he pounces on her and...
Before things get too gory, we cut to a movie theater where Jackson and Ray are viewing the final product. Ray is terrified while Jackson munches on a large tub of popcorn relishing his on-screen performance. Ray bolts and of course, Jackson follows her. "It's only a movie!" he quips. We hear the synth-beat opening and before he heads down the path of heartbreak, he follows her singing the three stanzas of the song in order to win back the girl. Then, the film takes a strange turn as soon as the late Vincent Price begins his 'rap'. Passing a cemetery where all the corpses are Lazarus-ing and making their way to the happy couple. It's here that there's some palpable tension. Ray and Jackson are surrounded by flesh-eating zombies about to become their main course. What to do? Ray turns around to see that Jackson himself has turned into a zombie and - starts dancing?!
This is the euphoric moment of the whole film: a complete and total zombie dance party! With Jackson's patented flashy choreography and a well-timed (even memorable) dance routine; it takes the film to a whole other level. Of course, we are reminded that this being a song about horror movies, it had to revert back to its regularly scheduled program. It goes all George Romero on us, before giving us the clinching gag as mentioned in the dialogue opener I always start my post with.
In closing, "Michael Jackson's Thriller" is that little diamond that adds punch and pizzazz to all my Halloweens and the future ones I'm allowed to have from now on. Who knew that a cute kid from Gary, Indiana who would become the heralded King of Pop would become my Halloween ringmaster.
Yes, I too have been known to do the "Zombie Dance" when no one's watching!
Next Up: A killer birthday present that made us terrified of dolls.