Instead, on December 2, 1983, the music world changed forever when Michael Jackson dropped his Thriller music video, which was actually a short film. Thriller was part musical and part horror-comedy. Prior to this project, music videos rarely had dialogue or a consistent plot. Michael's previous videos from the Thriller album indeed had minor storylines. He was stalked by paparazzi in the Billie Jean video. (Interestingly, based on Michael shushing Billie Jean's neighbor and her calling the cops on him, his character may not be telling us the truth about not being the kid's father). In Beat It, Michael arrives and saves the day by interrupting a gang fight. Instead of creating a blood bath, the real-life gangsters joined Michael in a dance. If only real life were that simple.
Thriller opens with a disclaimer. Back in those days, disclaimers were not a clever marketing tool. It really meant something BAD or DANGEROUS! People wanna see BAD things that are Off The Wall. So you naturally get curious and tune in.
The conversation suddenly turns serious. Michael takes a deep Jackson breath and gives her a wide-eyed stare. In his signature whispery voice, Michael tells her that he's not like other guys. The full moon reveals itself. Michael looks like he has to poop (badly) then he shrieks in one of those high-pitched Michael Jackson squeals and doubles over in pain. When he looks up, his voice has dropped several octaves and he has eyes like a kitty. His hair still looks good, though. Look at how it glistens.
He ambushes Ola by jumping from a tree and then attacks her. Next thing you know, the audience realizes that Michael and Ola are watching this whole thing at a movie theater. Michael is enjoying his popcorn a little too much, while Ola is so terrified that she walks out of the theater. This is where the Thriller song kicks in and Michael playfully teases her as they walk down a dark smokey alley that looks like the one Bruce Wayne's parents were killed in.
Anyway, zombies emerge from their graves just after Michael and Ola skip past the graveyard holding hands like preschoolers.
Despite being slow moving, the zombies form a perfect circle and close in on our protagonists. Instead of “manning up” and protecting his woman, Michael is just as wide-eyed and terrified as she is and clings to her for protection. (I take back what I said earlier about Michael's character being self-confident).
Ola turns to her boyfriend to see that he is now one of the undead, and the zombies join him in a brilliant dance. (“Undead” Michael is astonishing as he opens the dance struggling to breathe and twitching)
Typical Ola watches the dance and FINALLY runs away....but into a creepy old house. Look, she could have at least ran back to the movie theater which was maybe a mile away but still full of people. But nope, she runs into a decaying house which was likely the only haunted-looking house on the street. The girl is a genius, I tell ya.
The zombies break into the house through the walls, the windows and floor. Zombie Michael breaks through a paper thin door and then the zombies close in on Ola. Turns out the whole thing was a dream, but just as Michael and Ola are leaving, Michael turns to the camera to reveal his yellow kitty eyes.
The film crew were shooting in a Hispanic neighborhood called Union Pacific Avenue and someone in the press leaked that MICHAEL JACKSON was shooting a music video there. The documentary team interviewed some of the fans. Many of the women talk about how sexy and gorgeous he was and what a great dancer he was. (I swear all the women wanted to bang Michael back then). One kid was brave enough to go under the security rope and do some MJ-inspired poplocking and circle gliding for us. I can't help but wonder if any of these people are still fans of Michael?
Next we hear a woman's voice and then-- oh, that was Michael speaking! Michael's unnerving falsetto whisper was eerie during this time period. I understand that he wanted to keep a “child's voice” and maintain that high singing range, but this was ridiculous, especially knowing that his natural voice was not high like that. (Many have confirmed this, from Michael's ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley to his vocal coach, Seth Riggs, to his later producer, Teddy Riley to film director Spike Lee). Anyway, get used to hearing Michael's "man-child" voice throughout the documentary.
So Michael called up American Werewolf In London Director John Landis (John was asleep in London when Michael called. It was 2 AM London time). The two talked about how they wanted to “bring back the motion picture shorts” and do something elaborate that had never been done before.
Landis' warped sense of horror-humor is evident during Thriller. Given his high voice and lack of serious female companions, there were gay rumors that followed Michael from his late teens to around this time period. Landis played with this by having Michael say the line, “I'm not like other guys.”
And there's also the incident when the car ran out of gas and Michael decided they should look for help instead of making love. I read during the “Thriller Diaries” that Landis told Michael to look deep into Ola's eyes as he spoke the line, “You were scared weren't cha,” to make it "sexy." There's also the “See You Next Wednesday” line that was spoken off-screen, which is a line used in all of Landis' movies during the early 1980s.
But I'm getting off track here. After showing some of Michael's recent music videos like “Beat It,” “Can You Feel It” and a Jackson 5 performance of “Who's Loving You,” we move on to the makeup process. “It's disgusting, but it's brilliant!” squealed an excited Michael while observing Rick Baker's monstrous puppets and designs.
Then we watch Landis direct Michael and the zombies as they smash their way through the house and close in on Ola Ray. “I don't wanna go through another door again. That was great!” Landis said after Michael broke and staggered through the door.
Next up is Rick Baker introducing us to the werecat transformation, which I imagine was the toughest part of making Thriller. “I actually was trying to talk him about of it. But he wants to do this. I don't know why,” said Baker.
First, they made a cast of Michael's face to use as a reference to design the monster. They glued latex bladders to his face to make it look as if Michael's face was actually stretching and changing. (These were hidden under the mask and makeup).
One funny part is watching Michael slowly back away from his own reflection when he first saw himself in the full werewolf mask. He was scared of himself!!
The next funny part is hearing Michael squall like a strangled kitty during the filming of the werecat transformation scene. Thank God Landis and the editors overdubbed Michael's girlish screaming with the much deeper, anguished growls from David Naughton in “American Werewolf.”
Then we meet Michael Peters, the somewhat eccentric choreographer. “Ba-dah! Ba-dah!” he sings as he teaches the dancers the routine. We watch Michael and Michael create the dance, which is quite interesting. Landis also offers input, reminding the dancers that they will be wearing hideous and uncomfortable zombie makeup as they dance their asses off.
We then watch Michael's mesmerizing performance of Billie Jean on Motown 25 from earlier that year and see the worldwide preview of the moonwalk. (The dance had been around for decades but wasn't recognized by the masses until Michael did it).
Ola and Michael practice their “Thriller Walk” and discuss the script. I actually wish they had included footage of them rehearsing their lines. I don't know why, but my favorite scene in Thriller is the opening one. Like I said, Michael and Ola had this chemistry that just seemed so...real.
We see a brief scene of the editing process. Let me just say that the music they were considering using for some of the Thriller scenes was just plain terrible. I'm glad they chose the soundtrack that they did. They dodged a bullet there.
The last scene is Landis tickling Michael. It's uncomfortable to watch, but only because I'm ticklish myself so I felt Michael's pain.
Off The Record
Michael released other documentaries for his short films but this one is easily the best. In This Is It, for example, the viewer is more like a fly on the wall. Michael is never interviewed himself in This Is It, but he helped narrate the Making Of Thriller. His input is what helped the documentary.
Michael was in his prime in 1983, and this is the very Michael Jackson that some people don't want to let go of. THIS is the Michael Jackson that moonwalked into absolute megastardom. Plus, the songs played throughout the documentary from Thriller and Off The Wall show just how great his music was at that time.
Michael wasn't portrayed as weird here..just talented, curious, soft spoken, and well, normal. This was months before the Pepsi commercial burn and the other incidents that eventually took him down a dark path. If you want to remind yourself why people loved Michael Jackson so much in the first place, watch The Making of Thriller.