Written by Rod Temperton
Produced by Quincy Jones for Quincy Jones Productions
From the album Thriller, released November 30, 1982
Released as a single January 23, 1984
THE SHORT FILM
Director: John Landis
Primary Production Location: Los Angeles, California
Michael Jackson’s short film for “Thriller” was the third of three short films produced for recordings from Thriller, which continues its reign as the biggest selling album of all time with worldwide sales in excess of 105 million as of June 1, 2016 and in December 2015 became the first ever album to be awarded triple diamond status (i.e.: sales in excess of 30 million) by the RIAA for US sales alone. The “Thriller” single reached No. 1 in four countries in 1984, topping the U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart as well as charts in Spain, France and Belgium. The song peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Thriller the first album to feature seven Top 10 singles. The Recording Industry Association of America certified “Thriller” Gold and Platinum on December 4, 1989.
The groundbreaking short films for the Thriller album, starting with “Billie Jean,” following up with “Beat It” and culminating with the epic, nearly 14-minute “Thriller,” truly expanded the possibilities of “music video” as art form. “I wanted something that would glue you to the set, something you’d want to watch over and over,” Michael wrote in his 1988 memoir Moonwalk. “I wanted to be a pioneer in this relatively new medium and make the best short music movies we could make.”
In the short film’s extended prologue, Michael’s moonlit date with his girlfriend (played by model Ola Ray) is interrupted by his sudden transformation into a howling werewolf. While the “real” Michael and Ola, observing the scene in a movie theater, walk home from the their date, Michael teases her by singing the verses of “Thriller.” Afterward, a horde of zombies rises from their graves, threatening the couple. Michael soon turns into a zombie himself, and leads the troupe in an incredible choreographed dance routine to the rest of the song. Afterward, Michael and the zombies corner Ola in an abandoned house, only for her to realize it was all a nightmare—though Michael offers a last, beast-eyed glance at the camera before the credits roll.
Having seen John Landis’ horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London, Michael believed the same creative team could help realize his vision for “Thriller.” Director John Landis; producer George Folsey, Jr.; makeup artist Rick Baker (winner of the first Academy Award for Best Makeup on An American Werewolf in London); editor Malcolm Campbell; director of photography Robert Paynter and composer Elmer Bernstein all contributed to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
The “Thriller” short film has been universally recognized as the most important music video of all time. It first broadcast on MTV on December 2, 1983—the network’s first world premiere video—and was soon released on videocassette as part of Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, a feature-length documentary that was named the Best Selling Music Video by The Guinness Book of World Records in 2002.
In 1984, “Thriller” received three MTV Video Music Awards for Best Overall Performance in a Video, Best Choreography in a Video and Viewer’s Choice, as well as a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Video of the Year. The short film was inducted into the Music Video Producers’ Hall of Fame in 1991, and in 2009 was selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry—the first, and to date, only time a music video has received such an honor. In 1999, MTV ranked “Thriller” as the greatest music video of all time, one of three entries of Jackson’s on the chart alongside “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” In 2001, VH1 also named “Thriller” the greatest music video of all time, one of five of Jackson’s short films on the chart including “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Black or White” and “Scream.”
The choreography of “Thriller,” created by Jackson and Michael Peters, continues to influence popular culture. In 2006, a Guinness World Record-setting event in Toronto, Ontario, Canada found 62 people re-enacting the classic “Thriller dance”; this inspired an annual event, Thrill the World, where thousands of dancers in hundreds of events around the world organize simultaneous “Thriller” performances. On Michael’s birthday in 2009, the latest group to usurp this record was organized by the Instituto de la Juventud del Gobierno del Distrito Federal, which brought together 13,597 participants in an event at the Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City.