Michael Jackson's Thriller (music Video)
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Michael Jackson's Thriller Music Video

Michael Jackson's Thriller
Michael Jackson's Thriller title card.jpg
Title card
Directed byJohn Landis
Produced by
Written by
  • John Landis
  • Michael Jackson
Narrated byVincent Price
Music by
CinematographyRobert Paynter, B.S.C.
Edited by
  • Malcolm Campbell
  • George Folsey, Jr.
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • December 2, 1983 (1983-12-02)
Running time
CountryUnited States
Box officeSales:
9 million units
Music video
"Thriller" on YouTube

Michael Jackson's Thriller is a music video for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller" released on December 2, 1983. It was directed by John Landis and written by Landis and Jackson. Despite not being a film, the video was distributed by Columbia Pictures, a film distributor that is owned by Sony, a conglomerate corporation company that also owns Epic Records, a record label where Jackson recorded his singles at the time this video was released. In the video, Jackson and his girlfriend (played by Ola Ray) are confronted by zombies while walking home from a movie theater. Jackson becomes a zombie and performs a dance routine with a horde of the undead. The video references numerous horror films.

Jackson contacted Landis after seeing his film An American Werewolf in London. The pair conceived a short film with a budget much larger than previous music videos. Jackson's record company refused to finance it, believing Thriller had peaked, so a making-of documentary, Making Michael Jackson's Thriller, was produced to receive financing from television networks.

Michael Jackson's Thriller was launched to great anticipation and played regularly on MTV. It doubled sales of Thriller, helping it become history's bestselling album, and sold over a million copies on VHS, becoming the bestselling videotape at the time. It is credited for transforming music videos into a serious art form, breaking down racial barriers in popular entertainment, and popularizing the making-of documentary format.

Many elements have had a lasting impact on popular culture, such as the zombie dance and Jackson's red jacket, designed by Landis's wife Deborah Nadoolman. Fans worldwide re-enact its zombie dance and it remains popular on YouTube. The Library of Congress described it as "the most famous music video of all time". In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the National Film Registry as "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant.


Michael Jackson dancing with the living dead.

In the 1950s, Michael Jackson and a young woman (Ola Ray) run out of gas while driving in a wooded area. They walk into the forest and Michael asks her to be his girlfriend. She accepts. Jackson warns her that he is "not like other guys", transforms into a werecat, and attacks her.[3]

In a modern-day movie theater, Michael and his girlfriend are watching the previous scene as part of horror film, Thriller. She leaves early, disturbed by the violence. As they walk in the street, Michael teases her by performing the verses of "Thriller". In a graveyard, undead rise from their graves. The couple are surrounded and Michael becomes a zombie. He and the zombies dance to "Thriller".

Michael and the zombies chase his girlfriend into an abandoned house. She screams and wakes up, realizing it was a nightmare. Michael embraces her, but turns to the camera and grins, revealing his werecat eyes.


Michael Jackson's album Thriller was released in 1982 and spent more than a year at the top of the Billboard 200. By mid-1983, sales began to decline. Jackson, who was "obsessive" about his sales figures,[4] urged record executives Walter Yetnikoff and Larry Stessel to help conceive a plan to return the album to the top of the charts. Jackson's manager Frank DiLeo suggested making a third music video, for the title track, "Thriller". He recalled telling Jackson: "It's simple--all you've got to do is dance, sing, and make it scary."[4]

In early August, after seeing his horror film An American Werewolf in London, Jackson contacted John Landis to direct.[5] At the time, commercial directors did not direct music videos, but Landis was intrigued.[4] He and Jackson conceived a short shot on 35 mm film with the production values of a feature film.[4] They planned a budget of $900,000, much larger than any previous music video. According to Landis, when he called Yetnikoff to propose the film, Yetnikoff swore so loudly he had to remove the phone from his ear.[4] Jackson's record company had little interest in making another video for Thriller, believing that the album had peaked.[5] Yetnikoff eventually agreed that the company would contribute only $100,000.[4]

To help finance the production, Landis's producer George Folsey Jr suggesting a making-of documentary that, combined with the "Thriller" video, would produce an hour-long film that could be sold on television.[6] Initially, the television networks refused to finance the project, sharing the view that Thriller was "last year's news".[5]MTV, which had found success with Jackson's videos for "Billie Jean" and "Beat It", had a policy of not financing music videos itself, instead expecting record companies to pay for them. However, after Showtime, then a new channel, agreed to pay half the budget, MTV agreed to pay the rest, justifying the expenditure as financing for a motion picture and not a music video.[5]

MTV paid $250,000 for the exclusive rights to show the documentary; Showtime paid $300,000 for pay-cable rights.[4] Jackson covered additional costs, for which he would be reimbursed.[4]Vestron Music Video offered to distribute Making Michael Jackson's Thriller on VHS and Betamax; this was a pioneering concept, as most videos at the time were sold to rental stores rather than directly to viewers. Vestron paid an additional $500,000 to market the video cassette, in a "profit participation".[7]


Jackson wanted to make a video in which he transformed into a four-legged beast, similarly to the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London. This idea was replaced with a two-legged monster, as this made it easier for him to dance.[5] Landis felt Jackson should become "scary" and "creepy", but not "ugly". He suggested that Jackson should become a werewolf, inspired by the 1957 film I Was a Teenage Werewolf. This inspired the 1950s setting that begins the video.[5]

The Palace Theatre is featured in the music video.

Jackson created the zombie dance with choreographer Michael Peters, who had previously choreographed the "Beat It" video. Jackson said his first concern was to create a zombie dance that did not seem comical. He and Peters imagined how the zombies would move by making faces in the mirror, incorporating "jazzy" moves, "not too much ballet or whatever".[8]

Landis's wife Deborah Nadoolman, who had previously designed costumes for films, designed the costumes, including Jackson's red jacket. Nadoolman had previously served as a costume designer for the film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), designing the jacket and fedora worn by Indiana Jones.[5] The jacket was intended to make Jackson appear "virile".[9] She chose red to contrast with the night setting and dark palette, dressing him in "hip", casual clothes that would be comfortable to dance in, using the same color for his jacket and jeans to make him appear taller.[5]

Michael Jackson's Thriller was the first time Jackson had interacted with a woman in a video, which Landis described as a "breakthrough". Jennifer Beals turned down an offer to play the girlfriend.[4] Ola Ray, a former Playboy Playmate, was cast as, according to Landis, she was "crazy for Michael" and had a "great smile".[4] Landis encouraged Jackson and Ray to improvise during their scenes,[5] and urged Jackson to satisfy his female fans by acting "sexy" and showing "virility".[4] According to Ray, the attraction between them was real and they became intimate on set.[5]

Jackson's transformation makeup was designed by artist Rick Baker, who had worked on American Werewolf.[4]Elmer Bernstein composed incidental music for the video.[] The director of photography was Robert Paynter, who had worked with Landis on Trading Places.[4]

Thriller was filmed at the Palace Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, the zombie dance sequence at the junction of Union Pacific Avenue and South Calzona Street in East Los Angeles, and the final house scene in the Angeleno Heights neighborhood at 1345 Carroll Avenue. All principal photography was done in mid-October 1983.[10]

Entertainment figures including Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson and Jackie Kennedy Onassis visited the set.[6] Jackson's parents Joseph and Katherine Jackson also visited. According to Landis, Joseph refused to leave when Michael asked him to have him removed, and had to be escorted off the set by police, which Jackson denies.[5]

Two weeks before the premiere, Jackson called his assistant John Branca and ordered him to destroy the "Thriller" negatives. Jackson, who was a Jehova's Witness, had been told by church leaders that the video promoted demonology and he would be excommunicated. The production team agreed to protect the negatives and locked them in Branca's office.[5] Branca mollified Jackson by suggesting they include a disclaimer at the start of the film stating that it did not reflect Jackson's personal convictions.[5]

Horror elements

The Thriller video makes many allusions to horror films.[11] The opening scene parodies 1950s B-movie films, with Jackson and Ray dressed as 1950s teenagers. The metamorphosis of the polite "boy next door" into a werecat can be seen as a depiction of male sexuality, depicted as naturally bestial, predatory, and aggressive. Critic Kobena Mercer found similarities with the werewolf in The Company of Wolves (1984).[11]

The second metamorphosis has Michael becoming a zombie, introducing a dance sequence of dancing zombies, corresponding to a song lyric mentioning a masquerade ball of the dead.[12] Jackson's make-up casts "a ghostly pallor" over his skin and emphasizes the outline of his skull, an allusion to the mask from The Phantom of the Opera (1925).[12]

According to Peter Dendle the zombie invasion sequence is inspired by Night of the Living Dead (1968). Dendle wrote that the video captures the feelings of claustrophobia and helplessness essential to zombie films.[13]

Making Michael Jackson's Thriller

The "Thriller" video was aired alongside a documentary of the making of the video, Making Michael Jackson's Thriller, directed by Jerry Kramer.[5] It includes home video footage of a young Jackson dancing and footage of his performances from The Ed Sullivan Show and Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.[5]


After a private premiere on 21 November, Michael Jackson's Thriller debuted on MTV and Friday Night Videos on 2 December 1983.[6] After each broadcast of the video, MTV advertised when they would next play it, and recorded audience figures ten times the norm.[4]Showtime aired the video six times in February.[4] Within months, the cassette tape sold a million copies, making it the bestselling video release at that point.[4] To make the film eligible for an Academy Award, which required theatrical screenings, Landis arranged for the film to play before screenings of Fantasia (1940) at a Los Angeles cinema, though it was not nominated.[6]

The video dramatically boosted sales of the Thriller album, which selling a million copies a week following its debut.[6] It doubled album sales, helping make Thriller the bestselling album of all time.[4] According to Landis, "The earth-shattering success of Michael Jackson's Thriller was a surprise to everyone but Michael."[5] The success transformed Jackson into a global phenomenon, a dominating force in pop culture, and cemented Jackson's status as the "king of pop".[4]

At the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, "Thriller" won the awards for Viewers Choice, Best Overall Performance and Best Choreography, and was nominated for Best Concept Video, Best Male Video and Video of the Year.[14]

In 1982, the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) classified more than half of 200 MTV music videos surveyed as "too violent", including "Thriller" Jackson's duet with Paul McCartney, "Say, Say, Say".[15] NCTV chairman Thomas Radecki said: "It's not hard to imagine young viewers after seeing 'Thriller' saying, 'Gee, if Michael Jackson can terrorize his girlfriend, why can't I do it too?'[15]

Jackson, who was a Jehova's Witness, drew criticism from members of the religion. He published a statement in Awake!, a magazine published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. "I just intended to do a good, fun short film, not to purposely bring to the screen something to scare people or to do anything bad. I want to do what's right. I would never do anything like that again." He claimed that he had blocked further distribution and promotion in the areas where he had control.[16]


Michael Jackson's Thriller video sealed MTV's position as a major cultural force, helped dissemble racial barriers for black artists, revolutionised music video production, popularised the making-of documentaries, and drove rentals and sales of VHS tapes. Music video director Brian Grant credited "Thriller" as the turning point when music videos became a "proper industry".[6]

Participants of the 2008 Thrill the World event in Austin, Texas.

Vinny Marino of ABC News commented that the video being selected as the "Greatest Video of All Time" was a "no-brainer", saying that it "continues to be considered the greatest video ever by just about everyone."[17] Gil Kaufman of MTV described the video as "iconic" and felt that it was one of Jackson's "most enduring legacies".[18] Kaufman also noted that the music video was the "mini-movie that revolutionized music videos" and "cemented Jackson's status as one of the most ambitious, innovative pop stars of all time".[18]

Michael Jackson's Thriller was named the "greatest video" by MTV in 1999,[19] and by VH1[20] and Time in 2001.[21] In a poll of over one thousand users conducted by Myspace in 2010, it was voted the most influential music video.[22]

In 2009, Michael Jackson's Thriller was the first music video to be selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.[23] The Library described it as "the most famous music video of all time".[24]National Film Preservation Board coordinator Steve Legett, said the video had been considered for induction for years, but was chosen mainly due to Jackson's death that year.[25]

In 2002 Lexington, Kentucky, became the first city to launch a "Thriller" reenactment as a Halloween festivity. The video's storyline and dance sequences were recreated, beginning outside the Kentucky Theater and featuring hundreds of zombies who attended rehearsals at nearby Mecca Live Studio in the weeks leading up to the parade. Lexington's annual Thriller Parade attracts around 20,000 spectators and features multiple actors playing the role of Michael Jackson.

In 2011, the red jacket worn by Jackson in the video was auctioned for $1.8 million.[6]

A Hollywood production company attempted to turn Jackson's song "Billie Jean", which is also featured on Jackson's Thriller album, into a feature film, but no plans were completed.[26] In 2009, Jackson sold the "Thriller" rights to the Nederlander Organization to stage a Broadway musical based on the video.

"Thriller" continues to be popular on YouTube, which also hosts user-submitted videos of reenactments of the dance. The dance is performed in major cities around the world; the largest zombie dance included 12,937 dancers, in Mexico City.[4] A YouTube video of more than 1,500 prisoners performing the dance had attracted 14 million views as of 2010.[4]


Jackson was sued by Landis in a dispute over royalties for the video; Landis claims that he is owed four years worth of royalties.[27][28]

Ola Ray has also complained about difficulties collecting royalties. At first, Ray blamed Jackson, but then she apologized to him in 1997. However, Ray did sue Jackson on May 6, 2009 in a dispute to obtain uncollected royalties.[29] less than two months before Jackson's death on June 25. Eventually the Jackson Family Trust settled.[30]


Grammy Award

Year Category Result Notes
1985 Best Video, Long Form Won "Thriller"
1984 Best Video Album Won Making Michael Jackson's Thriller

MTV Award

Year Category Result
1999 100 Greatest Music Videos of all Time [31] Won
1984 Best Overall Performance in a Video Won
1984 Best Choreography (Michael Peters) Won
1984 Viewer's Choice Won

See also


  • Dendle, Peter (2001), "Thriller", The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, McFarland & Company, ISBN 978-0786455201
  • Mercer, Kobena (1991), "Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson's Thriller", in Gledhill, Christine, Stardom: Industry of Desire, Psychology Press, ISBN 978-0415052177
  • Mercer, Kobena (2005), "Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson's Thriller", in Frith, Simon; Goodwin, Andrew; Grossberg, Larence, Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, Routledge, ISBN 978-1134869237


  1. ^ "Michael Jackson's Thriller (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. December 9, 1983. Retrieved 2016.
  2. ^ "Director: Funds for "Thriller" almost didn't appear". Msnbc.msn.com. Retrieved .
  3. ^ Celizic, Mike (April 26, 2008). "'Thriller' still a classic after 35 years - TODAY Entertainment - TODAYshow.com". MSNBC. Retrieved .
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Griffin, Nancy (July 2010). "The "Thriller" Diaries". Vanity Fair. Retrieved .
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p L, John; is (2017-08-31). "John Landis on the making of Michael Jackson's Thriller: 'I was adamant he couldn't look too hideous'". the Guardian. Retrieved .
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Hebblethwaite, Phil (2013-11-21). "How Michael Jackson's Thriller changed music videos for ever". the Guardian. Retrieved .
  7. ^ Jay Cocks; Denise Worrell; Peter Ainslie; Adam Zagorin (December 26, 1982). "Sing a Song of Seeing". Time. Retrieved 2009.
  8. ^ "Michael Jackson's Life & Legacy: Global Superstar (1982-86)". VH1. Archived from the original on July 6, 2009. Retrieved 2009.
  9. ^ Lauren Goode (June 30, 2009). "Deborah Landis, Designer of the Red Jacket Michael Jackson Wore in "Thriller"". Wall Street Journal. Speakeasy. Retrieved 2009. At the time, she says, the 25-year-old Jackson weighed only 99 lbs, with a 26-inch waist ("exactly the same height and weight as Fred Astaire"), and one of the challenges she faced was making the performer appear more "virile."
  10. ^ "Photographic image of film schedule" (JPG). S12.postimg.org. Retrieved .
  11. ^ a b Mercer (2005), p. 85-89
  12. ^ a b Mercer (1991), p. 316-317
  13. ^ Dendle (2001), p. 171
  14. ^ "MTV Video Music Awards - 1985". MTV.com. Viacom. Retrieved 2010.
  15. ^ a b Patrick Kevin Day; Todd Martens (February 18, 2008). "25 'Thriller' facts". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010.
  16. ^ Author Unknown (May 22, 1984). "Young People Ask..."What About Music Videos?"". Awake!. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
  17. ^ Vinny Marino (May 2, 2001). "VH1 Names '100 Greatest Videos of All Time'". ABCNews.com. The Walt Disney Company. Retrieved .
  18. ^ a b Gil Kaufman (December 30, 2009). "Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' Added To National Film Registry". MTV.com. Viacom. Retrieved .
  19. ^ "MTV: 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made". RockOnTheNet.com. Rock on the Net. Retrieved 2010.
  20. ^ Vinny Marino (May 2, 2001). "VH1 Names '100 Greatest Videos of All Time'". ABCNews.com. The Walt Disney Company. Retrieved 2010.
  21. ^ Craig Duff (July 28, 2011). "The 30 All-TIME Best Music Videos - Michael Jackson, 'Thriller'". TIME. Retrieved 2011.
  22. ^ "'Thriller' voted most influential pop video". MSNBC. May 2, 2010. Retrieved .
  23. ^ Alex Dobuzinskis (December 30, 2009). "Jackson "Thriller" film picked for U.S. registry". Reuters.com. Retrieved .
  24. ^ Dave Itzkoff (December 30, 2009). "'Thriller' Video Added to U.S. Film Registry". NYTimes.com. The New York Times Company. Retrieved .
  25. ^ "Michael Jackson's Thriller added to US film archive". BBC News. December 31, 2009. Retrieved .
  26. ^ Patrick Kevin Day; Todd Martens (February 18, 2008). "25 'Thriller' facts". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010.
  27. ^ Grossberg, Josh (January 27, 2009). "A Legal Thriller: Michael Jackson Sued by John Landis". E! Online. Retrieved 2012.
  28. ^ "Michael Jackson sued by 'Thriller' director". Nme.Com. 2009-01-27. Retrieved .
  29. ^ Dillon, Nancy (May 5, 2009). "Gloves are off! 'Thriller' co-star Ola Ray sues Michael Jackson for royalties,". New York: Nydailynews.com. Retrieved .
  30. ^ "Michael Jackson, King of Pop, is dead at 50". Los Angeles Times. 2009-06-26. Retrieved .
  31. ^ "MTV: 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made". Rock On The Net. Retrieved .

External links

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