Michael Jackson's Thriller (music video)

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Michael Jackson's Thriller
Michael Jackson's Thriller title card.jpg
Title card
Directed by John Landis
Produced by
Written by
  • John Landis
  • Michael Jackson
Narrated by Vincent Price
Music by
Cinematography Robert Paynter, B.S.C.
Edited by
  • Malcolm Campbell
  • George Folsey, Jr.
Distributed by
Release date
  • December 2, 1983 (1983-12-02)
Running time
Country United States
Language English
Budget $500,000[2]
Box office

9 million units

Music video
"Thriller" on YouTube

Michael Jackson's Thriller is a 14-minute horror-themed music video for the song of the same name, released on December 2, 1983. Directed by John Landis, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Jackson, the song was released from Jackson's sixth studio album of the same name. It was MTV's first world premiere video. In the United Kingdom, the video was aired on Channel 4 late at night. Voted as the most influential pop music video of all time,[3] Thriller proved to have a profound effect on popular culture,[4][5] and was named "a watershed moment for the [music] industry"[3] for its unprecedented merging of filmmaking and music. Guinness World Records listed it in 2006 as the "most successful music video", selling over nine million copies.[6] In 2009, the video was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, the first music video to ever receive this honor, for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant.[7] The track was also listed at number one on "The Top 10 Halloween Songs" by Billboard.[8]

Co-starring with Jackson was former Playboy centerfold Ola Ray. The video was choreographed by Michael Peters (who had worked with the singer on his prior hit "Beat It"), and Jackson. Jackson contacted Landis after seeing his film An American Werewolf in London; make-up artist Rick Baker and composer Elmer Bernstein (who composed incidental music for the video) were also brought from the film to work on the video. The video (like the song) contains a spoken word performance by horror film veteran Vincent Price. "Thriller" was the third and final video for the Thriller album. The red jacket that Jackson wore was designed by Landis' wife Deborah Landis to make him appear more "virile".[9]

To qualify for an Academy Award as a short subject, the film was shown in a theatrical screening along with the 1940 Disney animated feature Fantasia in December 1983; however, the video failed to earn an Academy Award nomination.[10] As of July 26, 2018, the video has garnered over 530 million views on YouTube.[11]


Michael Jackson dancing with the living dead.

Due to Jackson being a Jehovah's Witness at the time, the video begins with a disclaimer that reads:

Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.
—Michael Jackson

On a night set in the 1950s, a teenaged Michael and his unnamed girl of interest (Ola Ray), run out of gas while driving in a wooded area. They walk into the forest as they leave the car behind and Michael asks her to be his girlfriend. She accepts and he gives her a ring. However, he then tells her that he is "not like other guys." She tells him that's the reason she loves him, but Michael insists that she doesn't understand what he means. As his girlfriend asks what he's talking about, a full moon appears, and Michael begins transforming into a werecat,[3] urging her to leave. The girl screams in terror and attempts to escape, but the werecat chases her, knocks her down, lunges at her with his claws, and attacks her (off-screen).

The scene then cuts to a movie theater where Michael and his unnamed girlfriend, along with an excitable audience, are actually watching the scene unfold in a Vincent Price horror movie titled "Thriller". Afraid, Michael's girlfriend leaves the theater and Michael follows, telling her, "It's only a movie." Some debate follows as to whether or not she was scared by the movie; she denies it, but Michael disagrees.

They then walk down a foggy road as Michael sings verses of the song excluding the chorus. They pass a nearby graveyard, in which the undead begin to rise out of their graves as Vincent Price's speech is heard. The zombies corner the two main characters threateningly, and suddenly Michael becomes a zombie himself. The zombies then break into an elaborate dance number, followed by the main chorus of "Thriller", during which Michael reverts to human form, frightening his date to the point where she runs for cover.

Michael (who has turned back into a zombie) and his fellow corpses chase the terrified girl into the room of a nearby abandoned house. While being cornered, Michael then reaches for the girl's throat as she lets out a horrifying shriek, only to awake and realize it was all a nightmare. Michael then offers to take her home, and she happily accepts. As they walk out of the house, Michael turns to the camera with a sinister grin, revealing his yellow werecat eyes from the opening scene, as Vincent Price offers one last spine-tingling and echoing laugh.

As the credits are shown, a reprise scene is shown and at the end of the credits the zombies dance back to their graves as a disclaimer appears saying that "Any similarity to actual events or persons living, dead, (or undead) is purely coincidental", the same disclaimer that appeared in An American Werewolf in London also directed by Landis. After that, a zombie breaks the fourth and final wall and gives a terrifying grimace to the audience as the video ends.




In December 2009, it was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress along with 24 other films.[17] It was the first ever (and to this day, only) music video to be selected.[18] The Registry titled Thriller as "the most famous music video of all time".[19] The coordinator of the National Film Preservation Board, who decides upon candidates for inclusion in the National Film Registry, Steve Legett, said "The time is right" for Thriller to be included, because of the death of Jackson that year.[18]

Grammy Award[edit]

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

MTV Award[edit]

Year Category Result
1999 100 Greatest Music Videos of all Time [20] Won
1984 Best Overall Performance in a Video Won
1984 Best Choreography (Michael Peters) Won
1984 Viewer's Choice Won


In the summer of 1983, Thriller had begun to decline in sales. Walter Yetnikoff and Larry Stessel answered calls throughout the night from Jackson. "Walter, the record isn’t No. 1 anymore," Yetnikoff recalls Jackson saying. "What are we going to do about it?" 'We’re going to go to sleep and deal with it tomorrow,'" Yetnikoff remembered answering. Jackson manager Frank DiLeo first mentioned the idea of making a third video, and pressed Jackson to consider the album’s title track. "It’s simple—all you’ve got to do is dance, sing, and make it scary," DiLeo recalls telling Jackson.[21]

In early August, after seeing An American Werewolf in London, Jackson contacted John Landis to direct the video. At the time, commercial motion-picture directors did not direct music videos, but Landis was intrigued.[21]

The music video 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.[22]


In an interview that aired December 11, 1999 for MTV's 100 Greatest Videos Ever Made, Jackson spoke about the making of the video:

My idea was to make this short film with conversation ... in the beginning – I like having a beginning and a middle and an ending, which would follow a story. I'm very much involved in complete making and creating of the piece. It has to be, you know, my soul. Usually, you know, it's an interpretation of the music. It was a delicate thing to work on because I remember my original approach was, 'How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?' So I said, 'We have to do just the right kind of movement so it doesn't become something that you laugh at.' But it just has to take it to another level. So I got in a room with [choreographer] Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies move by making faces in the mirror. I used to come to rehearsal sometimes with monster makeup on, and I loved doing that. So he and I collaborated and we both choreographed the piece and I thought it should start like that kind of thing and go into this jazzy kind of step, you know. Kind of gruesome things like that, not too much ballet or whatever.


According to Kobena Mercer, "the video is strewn with allusions to horror films".[24] The opening scene is a parody of 1950s B movie horror films, with the characters dressed in the fashions of 1950s teenagers. The metamorphosis of the polite 'boy next door' into a werecat can be seen as a depiction of male sexuality. A sexuality that is depicted as naturally bestial, predatory, aggressive, violent and therefore monstrous.[24] Mercer perceived similarities with the werewolf depiction in The Company of Wolves (1984).[24]

The second metamorphosis of the video has Michael becoming a zombie. It serves as an introduction to a dance sequence which features dancing ghouls, corresponding to a song lyric mentioning a masquerade ball of the dead.[25] The scene calls attention to the macabre make-up of the ghouls. Jackson's own make-up casts "a ghostly pallor" over his skin and emphasizes the outline of his skull. The image itself serves as an allusion to the mask from The Phantom of the Opera (1925).[25]

According to Peter Dendle the zombie invasion sequence of the film is inspired by Night of the Living Dead (1968). The film manages to treat the sequence with enough seriousness to capture the feelings of claustrophobia and helplessness which are essential to the subgenre of zombie films.[26]

Making Michael Jackson's Thriller[edit]

The Palace Theatre is featured in the music video.

Released in tandem with the video was an hour-long documentary providing candid glimpses behind the scenes of the production. Called Making Michael Jackson's Thriller, it, too, was shown heavily on MTV for a time and was the top-selling home-video release of all time at one point, with over 9 million copies sold. The VHS also included video clips from the songs "Can You Feel It", "Beat It", and the Motown 25 performance of "Billie Jean" as well as audio clips from Jackson's songs "Off the Wall" and "Workin' Day and Night".

MTV paid $250,000 for the exclusive rights to show the documentary; Showtime paid $300,000 for pay-cable rights; and Vestron Music Video reportedly put down an additional $500,000 to market the cassette, in "a profit participation."[27]

Rick Baker expected to have a few weeks to do the special effects make up for the zombies (which usually requires impressions to be taken of the actors face to base the prosthetics on) only to find out the dancers would not be cast until a few days before shooting began. It was decided to do generic make up for the dancers (using a combination of precast prosthetics) while members of Baker's crew in the more elaborate make up for shots that featured more closeups (like the zombie coming out of the manhole)

Broadway and litigation[edit]

In 2009, Jackson sold the rights of "Thriller" to the Nederlander Organization, to stage a Broadway musical based on the video.

Jackson was sued by Landis in a dispute over royalties for the video; Landis claims that he is owed four years worth of royalties.[28][29]

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.[30] less than two months before Jackson's death on June 25. Eventually the Jackson Family Trust settled.[31]


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

Following the success of the "Thriller" video, a Hollywood production company reportedly began serious work on trying to turn Jackson's song "Billie Jean", which is also featured on Jackson's Thriller album, into a feature film, but no plans were ever completed.[32] Vinny Marino of ABC News commented that "Thriller"'s music video being selected as the "Greatest Video of All Time" was a "no-brainer" and remarked that, "Michael Jackson's "Thriller" continues to be considered the greatest video ever by just about everyone."[33] Gil Kaufman of MTV described the "Thriller" video as being "iconic" and felt that it was one of Jackson's "most enduring legacies".[34] 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".[34] Steve Peake, of About.com, listed "Thriller" as being Jackson's eighth best song of the 1980s.[35] Patrick Kevin Day and Todd Martens, of The Los Angeles Times commented that,

"Thriller's" phenomenal success led to a breaking down of traditional racial barriers on FM radio at the time. New York's WPLJ, a "white" station, played Jackson's "Beat It" because of Eddie Van Halen's appearance on it. The song caused a wave of protests from some listeners who didn't want "black" music on their station. MTV also had a reputation for favoring white performers at the time, and its heavy rotation of Jackson videos helped alleviate the criticism.[32]

Leaders in Michael Jackson's religion were not so pleased, by contrast. In spite of his disclaimer at the beginning of the video, Jackson made a public "apology" in the pages of Awake!, a magazine published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. " 'I would never do it again!" says Jackson. "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." Why not? "Because a lot of people were offended by it," explains Jackson. "That makes me feel bad. I don’t want them to feel that way. I realize now that it wasn’t a good idea. I’ll never do a video like that again!" He continues: "In fact, I have blocked further distribution of the film over which I have control, including its release in some other countries. There’s all kinds of promotional stuff being proposed on Thriller. But I tell them, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to do anything on Thriller. No more Thriller.’ "[36]

In December 2009, the music video for "Thriller" was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, "Thriller" is the first music video to ever be inducted.[37] The Registry explained, "because of the way the recording industry is evolving and changing, we thought it would be good to go back to the development of an earlier seismic shift, which was the development of the music video"[34] and described the music video as being "the most famous music video of all time".[38] The coordinator of the National Film Preservation Board, who decides upon candidates for inclusion in the National Film Registry, Steve Legett, noted that the music video was considered for induction for years, but was chosen mainly due to Jackson's death that year.[39] In a poll conducted by Myspace in 2010, which asked over one thousand users on their site to name the most influential music video of all time from a list of twenty videos selected by music and entertainment critics, Michael Jackson's Thriller was voted the most influential video.[40]

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.

See also[edit]


  • 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


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  3. ^ a b c Celizic, Mike (April 26, 2008). "'Thriller' still a classic after 35 years - TODAY Entertainment - TODAYshow.com". MSNBC. Retrieved 2010-07-24.
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  14. ^ "Page 7". benlokeyproductions. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
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  25. ^ a b Mercer (1991), p. 316-317
  26. ^ Dendle (2001), p. 171
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  30. ^ Dillon, Nancy (May 5, 2009). "Gloves are off! 'Thriller' co-star Ola Ray sues Michael Jackson for royalties,". New York: Nydailynews.com. Retrieved 2010-07-24.
  31. ^ "Michael Jackson, King of Pop, is dead at 50". Los Angeles Times. 2009-06-26. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
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  40. ^ "'Thriller' voted most influential pop video". MSNBC. May 2, 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-03.

External links[edit]