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Michael Jackson's Thriller (music video)

Michael Jackson's Thriller is a 1983 music video for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller", directed by John Landis and written by Landis and Jackson. In the video, which references numerous horror films, Jackson performs a dance routine with a horde of the undead.

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 byEpic Records
Sony Music Entertainment
IMAX (2018 re-release)
Release date
  • December 2, 1983 (1983-12-02)
Running time
CountryUnited States
Box officeSales:
9 million units
Music video
Thriller on YouTube

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, Epic, 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 the sales of Thriller, helping it become the best-selling album in history, 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", and it has been named the greatest video of all time by various publications and readers' polls. In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the National Film Registry as "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant.


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 werewolf, and attacks her.

In the present, Michael and his girlfriend are watching the werewolf film in a movie theater. She leaves, disturbed by the violence. 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 werewolf 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,[3] 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."[3][4]

In early August, after seeing his horror film An American Werewolf in London, Jackson contacted director John Landis.[5] At the time, commercial directors did not direct music videos, but Landis was intrigued. He and Jackson conceived a short shot on 35mm film with the production values of a feature film, with 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.[3] Jackson's record company, Epic, 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.[3]

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 to 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.[3] Jackson covered additional costs, for which he would be reimbursed.[3] 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 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 designed costumes for films including Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), designed the costumes, including Jackson's red jacket.[5] 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.[3] According to Landis, Ola Ray, a former Playboy Playmate, was cast as she was "crazy for Michael" and had a "great smile".[3] 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".[3] According to Ray, the chemistry between them was real and they shared "intimate moments" during the shoot.[3]

Jackson's transformation makeup was designed by artist Rick Baker, who had worked on American Werewolf.[3] Elmer Bernstein composed incidental music for the video.[citation needed] The director of photography was Robert Paynter, who had worked with Landis on Trading Places.[3]

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.[9]

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 Jehovah'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 elementsEdit

The Thriller video makes many allusions to horror films.[10] 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 werewolf has been interpreted 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).[10]

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.[11] 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).[11]

According to Peter Dendle, the zombie invasion sequence was inspired by Night of the Living Dead (1968). Dendle wrote that the video captures the feelings of claustrophobia and helplessness essential to zombie films.[12]

Making Michael Jackson's ThrillerEdit

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]


On November 14, 1983, the 14-minute film was shown to a private audience at the Crest Theater in Los Angeles. In attendance were Diana Ross, Warren Beatty, Prince, Eddie Murphy and many more "A-list" stars. Jackson stayed in the projection booth so that others such as actress Ola Ray could bask in the attention. When the film ended, the theater erupted in applause, and Murphy shouted "Show the goddamn thing again!", which is what happened.[3]

Jackson during the Thriller music video

The video debuted publicly on MTV on December 2, 1983.[6] After each broadcast of the video, MTV advertised when they would next play it, and recorded audience figures ten times the norm.[3] Showtime aired the video six times in February.[3] Within months, the cassette tape sold a million copies, making it the bestselling video release at that point.[3] 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 sold a million copies a week following its debut.[6] It doubled album sales, helping make Thriller the bestselling album of all time.[3] 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".[3]

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.[13]

In 1982, the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) reviewed 200 MTV videos and classified more than half as too violent, including Thriller. 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?'[14]

Jackson, who was a Jehovah's Witness at that time, drew criticism from members of the religion. In a statement published in Awake!, a magazine published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, he said: "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 said he had blocked further distribution and promotion in the areas where he had control.[15]


Michael Jackson's Thriller video sealed MTV's position as a major cultural force, helped disassemble racial barriers for black artists, revolutionized music video production, popularized 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".[16]

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]

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

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 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 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 2011, the red jacket worn by Jackson in the video was auctioned for $1.8 million.[16]

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.[27] A YouTube video of more than 1,500 prisoners performing the dance had attracted 14 million views as of 2010.[27]

In 2017, the music video made its world debut in a newly-restored 3D version at the 74th annual Venice Film Festival, accompanied by the Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller documentary, also newly remastered.[28] It was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival[29], followed by a U.S. premiere at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre[30], before being further remastered in IMAX 3D for a limited engagement in 2018, preceding screenings of The House With a Clock in Its Walls in North America for its first week.[31] The restoration process from the original negatives was overseen by John Landis. The new version also includes newly-remixed audio as well as a jump scare ending.


Jackson was sued by Landis in a dispute over royalties for the video; Landis claims that he is owed four years worth of royalties.[32][33]

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.[34] less than two months before Jackson's death on June 25. Eventually the Jackson Family Trust settled.[35]


Grammy AwardEdit

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

MTV AwardEdit

Year Category Result
1999 100 Greatest Music Videos of all Time [36] Won
1984 Best Overall Performance in a Video Won
1984 Best Choreography (Michael Peters) Won
1984 Viewer's Choice Won

See alsoEdit


  • 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 (ed.), 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 (eds.), 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 October 9, 2016.
  2. ^ "Director: Funds for "Thriller" almost didn't appear". Retrieved August 19, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Griffin, Nancy (January 24, 2010). "The 'Thriller' Diaries". Vanity Fair.
  4. ^ Eagan, Daniel (November 24, 2011). America's Film Legacy, 2009–2010: A Viewer's Guide to the 50 Landmark Movies Added To The National Film Registry in 2009–10. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 175. ISBN 978-1-4411-9328-5. Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o L, John; is (August 31, 2017). "John Landis on the making of Michael Jackson's Thriller: 'I was adamant he couldn't look too hideous'". the Guardian. Retrieved October 27, 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d e Hebblethwaite, Phil (November 21, 2013). "How Michael Jackson's Thriller changed music videos for ever". the Guardian. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  7. ^ Jay Cocks; Denise Worrell; Peter Ainslie; Adam Zagorin (December 26, 1982). "Sing a Song of Seeing". Time. Retrieved November 15, 2009.
  8. ^ "Michael Jackson's Life & Legacy: Global Superstar (1982–86)". VH1. Archived from the original on July 6, 2009. Retrieved July 7, 2009.
  9. ^ "Photographic image of film schedule". Archived from the original (JPG) on October 1, 2016. Retrieved August 19, 2016.
  10. ^ a b Mercer (2005), p. 85-89
  11. ^ a b Mercer (1991), p. 316-317
  12. ^ Dendle (2001), p. 171
  13. ^ "MTV Video Music Awards – 1985". Viacom. Retrieved January 22, 2010.
  14. ^ Patrick Kevin Day; Todd Martens (February 18, 2008). "25 'Thriller' facts". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
  15. ^ Author Unknown (May 22, 1984). "Young People Ask..."What About Music Videos?"". Awake!. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
  16. ^ a b Hebblethwaite, Phil (November 21, 2013). "How Michael Jackson's Thriller changed music videos for ever". the Guardian. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  17. ^ Vinny Marino (May 2, 2001). "VH1 Names '100 Greatest Videos of All Time'". The Walt Disney Company. Retrieved January 22, 2010.
  18. ^ a b Gil Kaufman (December 30, 2009). "Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' Added To National Film Registry". Viacom. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
  19. ^ "MTV: 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made". Rock on the Net. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
  20. ^ Vinny Marino (May 2, 2001). "VH1 Names '100 Greatest Videos of All Time'". The Walt Disney Company. Retrieved January 22, 2010.
  21. ^ Craig Duff (July 28, 2011). "The 30 All-TIME Best Music Videos – Michael Jackson, 'Thriller'". TIME. Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  22. ^ "'Thriller' voted most influential pop video". MSNBC. May 2, 2010. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  23. ^ Alex Dobuzinskis (December 30, 2009). "Jackson "Thriller" film picked for U.S. registry". Retrieved January 22, 2010.
  24. ^ Dave Itzkoff (December 30, 2009). "'Thriller' Video Added to U.S. Film Registry". The New York Times Company. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
  25. ^ "Michael Jackson's Thriller added to US film archive". BBC News. December 31, 2009. Retrieved January 22, 2010.
  26. ^ Patrick Kevin Day; Todd Martens (February 18, 2008). "25 'Thriller' facts". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 23, 2010.
  27. ^ a b Griffin, Nancy (January 24, 2010). "The 'Thriller' Diaries". Vanity Fair.
  28. ^ "'Michael Jackson's Thriller 3D' to World Premiere at Venice Film Festival 2017". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  29. ^ Brown, Phil (September 13, 2017). "John Landis on 'Thriller 3D', the 'American Werewolf' Remake, & Lucasfilm's Director Troubles". Collider. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  30. ^ Niemietz, Brian. "'Thriller 3D' screening brings back the ghosts of Michael Jackson past – NY Daily News". Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  31. ^ "'Michael Jackson's Thriller 3D' To Be Remastered for IMAX". Billboard. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  32. ^ Grossberg, Josh (January 27, 2009). "A Legal Thriller: Michael Jackson Sued by John Landis". E! Online. Retrieved January 14, 2012.
  33. ^ "Michael Jackson sued by 'Thriller' director". Nme.Com. January 27, 2009. Retrieved August 19, 2016.
  34. ^ Dillon, Nancy (May 5, 2009). "Gloves are off! 'Thriller' co-star Ola Ray sues Michael Jackson for royalties,". New York: Retrieved July 24, 2010.
  35. ^ "Michael Jackson, King of Pop, is dead at 50". Los Angeles Times. June 26, 2009. Retrieved August 19, 2016.
  36. ^ "MTV: 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made". Rock On The Net. Retrieved August 19, 2016.

External linksEdit