As the young woman stepped out of the theatre, the cool autumn air brushed softly against her cheek. The city was unusually quiet for this time of night as she came to a halt and folded her arms, impatiently waiting for her companion to follow. A few seconds later a man stepped out behind her, and in this moment the silence was violently disturbed by a thunderous roar of cheers and applause. The couple turned to face the crowd of enthusiastic onlookers, young and old, who had congregated at the end of the street to catch a glimpse of the action. At only twenty-four, Michael Jackson had already been a star for over a decade, but the last twelve months had transcended him to a higher status, and as he looked out over the sea of adoring faces, he felt overwhelmed by their devotion. Ola Ray, his faux date for the evening, watched on in fascination as the screams continued to fill the air, but the surrounding members of the film crew bring them soberly back down to earth. The purpose of tonight’s excursion was to capture footage for a film that, in just a few short months, would transform the world and usher in the age of music videos, outrageous fashion, and MTV. John Landis, the director of these proceedings, hurried over and gestured to their mark. Ray, pretending to be furious at her boyfriend, marched away from the doors of the theatre, with Jackson playfully giving chase as they made their way down Broadway. Once Landis shouted cut, they both broke character and started laughing like children. But not every day on set was as carefree as this, as Jackson was about to embrace both the unknown and the undead in a visual spectacle that would change his life in ways he was unprepared for. This top secret project that the team were striving for so hard to complete will ultimately become ground zero for a cultural revolution that would enthral a generation of music fans, and elevate one pop singer into a larger than life icon. But long before the media scrutiny, the rumours, and the hidden truths that would finally tear him apart, the young man waved back at his fans as he smiled to himself, knowing that he now had the world in the palm of his hands.

This circus of the weird and wonderful all began with a desire to become a monster. Having gained a reputation as someone mild-mannered and even oddly feminine, the tabloids had spent the last few years speculating on his sexuality and mental state, and with his life having come-of-age on stages and television sets around the world, Michael Jackson had been raised in the spotlight, his every move illuminated by the flash of the cameras. Having been deprived of a normal childhood, he was left feeling confused and scared of becoming an adult, and through the symbolism of werewolves and zombies, he could reveal the monster he felt inside. ‘In adolescence, youngsters begin to grow hair in unexpected places, and parts of their anatomy swell and grow,’ explained Landis. ‘Everyone experiences these physical transformations in their bodies, and new, unfamiliar, sexual thoughts in their minds. No wonder we readily accept the concept of literal metamorphosis.’ For all teenagers, puberty is a difficult process in which the body undergoes a significant change, with the new unexplored urges coupled with a physical development that leads a child into adulthood, but for a celebrity this period in their life proves even more traumatic. And for Jackson, the fresh-faced young star of the Jackson 5, undergoing this in the public eye was almost unbearable. ‘My appearance began to really change when I was about fourteen,’ he recalled in his memoir. ‘I got very shy and became embarrassed to meet people because my complexion was so bad. It really seemed that the more I looked in the mirror, the worse the pimples got. My appearance began to depress me.’ And as he became more self-conscious about the effects that developing into a man would have on him, his struggles with the fame he was experiencing as a solo artist left him feeling twisted and broken. And after stumbling upon a monster movie late one night, he found the perfect way to express his confusion and self-disgust.

More than any other genre, the horror story serves as a metaphor for the human condition, with monsters often symbolic of mankind’s own struggle with their own barbarism, or the physical transformations that occur in the body. The lycanthrope, or werewolf, has often been used as a means to explore the change that an individual experiences throughout puberty, whether it is depicted from a male (Teen Wolf) or female (Ginger Snaps) point-of-view. But it also represents the beast within man; the unstoppable savage being that destroys without conscience. ‘The point in common everywhere is the transformation of a living human being into an animal,’ wrote Caroline Taylor Stewart in her 1909 text The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition. ‘Primitive man was face-to-face with animal foes, and had to conquer them or be destroyed.’ In Thriller, Jackson’s fourteen-minute homage to the classic creature features of early cinema, the wolf represents both his development from child into a man, and also the beast he struggles to contain within himself. Much like every other member of the human race, he struggled to walk the line between being the good person that he should be, and embracing his inner demons. This is the essence of many horror films. But if the werewolf personifies the coming of adulthood, then the zombie represents our mortality, and the inevitability of death. If there is an element of sexuality – and, thus, procreation – in the werewolf, the zombie is merely death and decay, an end to everything that ever was. ‘Zombies are the great unwashed of horror cinema,’ claimed author Jamie Russell in Book of the Dead: The History of Zombie Cinema. ‘Full of a morbid sense of the body’s limitations and frailties, the zombie myth is closely bound by our troubled relationship with our own bodies.’ And it was through the untamed nature of the werewolf, and the repulsive appearance of the zombie, that Jackson was able to express his dismay at the loss of childhood innocence.

He was dubbed the Peter Pan of Pop: the man-child that refused to grow up, an adult that was deprived of his childhood due to a life on the road, and who, in his twenties and beyond, was unable to deal with the demands of growing up. Steven Spielberg, who had collaborated with Jackson on an adaptation of the filmmaker’s 1982 blockbuster E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, once told the singer, ‘If E.T. didn’t come to Elliott, he would have come to your house.’ During their time together, Spielberg was fascinated by the purity that his new friend possessed. ‘Michael is one of the last living innocents who is in complete control of his life,’ he declared. ‘I’ve never seen anybody like Michael. He’s an emotional star-child.’ And yet even after he had left his childhood behind, he remained ill-equipped to cope with the pressures of fame, and while onstage he seemed a cocksure popstar, in the real world he struggled to connect emotionally with those around him. ‘I hate leaving the stage,’ he confessed to Entertainment Weekly. ‘I was raised onstage, and when I’m not onstage I’m not as happy, and everything feels foreign to me, or new. And I’m just now beginning to enjoy friendships, which is new for me.’ Like any child, Jackson fantasised about being something more than himself, and yet while other young boys were forced to play make-believe, he was able to conjure up these visions on screen for the whole world to see. And with the arrival of the music video in the late seventies, this allowed him the perfect medium in which to indulge in these abstract creations. ‘Michael Jackson seems like this kid who loves music, horror films, special effects, make-up, zombies, and wants all of those things in the video,’ said Spike Jonze, who would pioneer the format a decade later. ‘It has the spirit to it that must have been contagious; it spoke to other kids.’ Jackson had already broken new ground with the promo videos for both Billie Jean and Beat It, but he remained determined to take this new innovation to unexplored heights, and through the marriage of music and cinema, he ushered in the eighties with his magnum opus: Thriller.

Michael Jackson, Ola Ray, and John Landis

Twilight had given way to darkness as a car slowly rolled onto lovers’ lane, where it came to a halt under the soft glow of the moonlight. This quiet rural area is where many teenagers come to park and share a kiss, and on this evening the young couple shared a flirtatious smile before a walk through the woods was suggested. With no other cars in sight, they enjoyed a carefree stroll through the trees, before the young man came to a halt and turned to face his shy date. He confessed to her that he is not like other men, and to this she triesd to reassure that this is why she loves him, but he insisted that she does not understand what he is trying to tell her. As the clouds above were pushed aside and the full glare of the moon waa exposed, the man buckled over in pain and clutched his stomach. She watched on in horror as he screamed in pain, his face twisted in agony as animal-like claws slowly extended from his fingertips. As this played out, his face contorted and pulsated, taking on a feline quality, with fangs protruding from his gums. Having initially frozen in fear, the girl finally came to her senses and ran through the trees, but once his metamorphosis was complete he eventually gave chase. The action then cut to the inside of a theatre, where a young couple that closely resemble the ones on screen were watching a fifties creature feature called Thriller. But when the movie became too much for her, the girl begged her date for them to leave. He rejected her pleas and so she angrily marched out into the foyer, forcing him to abandon his popcorn and follow her outside. Once they are out on the sidewalk, he began to tease her for being scared at the movie, but after denying that was her reason for leaving, she turned her back to him and headed down the street. 

After mocking her once more, he walked quickly to catch her up, and began to sing a song, a macabre tale of the terror that lurks within the darkness of the night. But even as he tried to humour her with his story, the dead had begun to rise from their resting places, the decomposing remains of long-lost loved ones returning to life and crawling from their tombs. And as they slowly began to circle the couple, she turned to her partner for help, only to discover that he had transformed into one of the living dead. He then proceeded to lead the zombies in a dance, as if taunting her of the gruesome fate that awaited her. When the terror became too much, she rushed from the scene and made her way to the closest house, a dilapidated building which the ghouls were easy to overcome. But as they reached out to claim her, she was abruptly awoken from her sleep by her boyfriend, only to discover that this was nothing more than a nightmare. But after reassuring her and offering to drive her home, his eyes reveal that this may not have been all in her mind after all. What is real? What is fiction? And who is her boyfriend really? In just fourteen minutes, Jackson indulged in both werewolves and zombies, playing with the fourth wall by utilising the film-within-a-film concept, performing an elaborate dance number in the spirit of classic musicals, and offering the audience an ambiguous ending that refused to provide a concise answer to whether or not the events were nothing but a dream. Whereas his contemporaries were offering little more than performance pieces with little in the way of narratives, Jackson was giving a postmodern spin to both the music video and the eighties horror movie.

Thriller was released during something of a resurgence in the horror genre following the advent of home video. While creature features and exploitation pictures had remained a constant draw during the heyday of the drive-in theatre, VHS and Betamax offered viewers the opportunity to watch films in the comfort of their own home, no longer limited to the schedules of their local cinemas. With major studios reluctant to embrace this new medium, independent distributors purchased as many low-budget titles as they could, and soon the market was flooded with violent and sexually-explicit films that would anger the censors and yet excite their audience. While werewolves had enjoyed a newfound popularity following the success of both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, it was zombies that had proved a popular draw in recent years. Ever since the release of George A. Romero’s influential classic Night of the Living Dead in the late sixties, the living dead had been exploited by an array of European filmmakers, and by the time Romero created his own highly-anticipated sequel, Dawn of the Dead, the zombie had proved an endearing monster. With prosthetic make-up effects having evolved significantly over the last decade, filmmakers were able to revel in the grotesque aesthetics that the dead coming back to life had to offer. And even as the government in the United Kingdom waged a war against such ‘video nasties’ as The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and Zombie Flesh Eaters, box office takings and home video sales proved that the public could not get enough of the undead.

By the time the ground-breaking video for Thriller was released in the winter of 1983, the world was coming dangerously close to losing interest in Michael Jackson. It had been more than twelve months since the release of its parent album, and in that time he had enjoyed three number one singles, and several other Top Ten hits. But its commercial momentum had started to wane, and Jackson feared that he may become obsolete. His performance at Motown 25 in May 1983, during which he showcased his iconic moonwalk to a captivated audience, had transformed him into a superstar, but it would be Thriller that helped him to lead the charge into the world of MTV. ‘Michael Jackson grew up in the age of marketing,’ detailed Nelson George, the author of the first published biography, The Story of Michael Jackson. ‘He didn’t need anybody to tell him he’d have to create a strong visual image. He already knew that, so he went out and created one.’ There is no denying that while Jackson may not have been a director, it was his imagination and determination that allowed filmmakers the chance to push this new medium into more ambitious waters, resulting in promo clips that were akin to motion pictures. ‘It was taking video to another level,’ boasted Bob Giraldi, the director responsible for Beat It. ‘Michael was given credit, and rightly so, for being the first really, truly, crossover artist of our generation, and the man who forced MTV by his genius to rethink its platform.’ By the release of Thriller, MTV was just two-years-old, and while the channel had already placed such videos as Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf and 1999 by Prince on heavy rotation, Jackson wanted his latest offering to change the world. ‘With Thriller, my mission was to make a short film, a story, almost like watching a mini movie.  It wasn’t just a video, just a lot of abstract craziness that doesn’t make sense,’ he later insisted. ‘I didn’t want to copy people. I wanted to be an innovator.’

I. Close to Midnight

‘We’re a few seconds away from switching to the redundant set sequencer. T-minus twenty-seven seconds,’ announced the voice as America watched on in anticipation, eagerly awaiting the launch of a revolutionary new NASA shuttle programme called the Space Transportation System. As the crew of the Columbia prepared to embark on their mission among the stars, the nation patiently waited for the craft to lift off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and soar high into the heavens. Four months later, at one minute after midnight, viewers were glued to their television sets once again to relive the historic moment, this time in celebration of the launch of a revolutionary new concept called music television. In a modest-sized restaurant in the New Jersey city of Fort Lee, a group of producers and executives gathered together to witness the dawn of a new age, and as they shared bottles of champagne and stories of wild ambition coming to fruition, they stared with hypnotic glee at the barrage of surreal colours and outlandish images that were on display. ‘In the beginning was the music,’ claimed another voice as the first video of this channel quietly came to an end. ‘But there was no one around to hear it. As the population grew in numbers, music grew in popularity. Man invented the radio, and the phonograph. High fidelity made quite a splash. But it was full-stereo sound that made the explosion. Soon television came along and gave us the gift of sight, but it was cable that gave us the freedom of choice. For a while it seemed there was nothing new on the horizon. Announcing the latest achievement in home entertainment, the power of sight, the power of video, the power of sound: MTV Music Television.’ And so, early one summer morning many years ago, the revolution was televised.

‘I loved watching it. How exciting back then, being a teenager, and having something so creative, so fresh, so new,’ enthused Janet Jackson, Michael’s second youngest sibling, who was just fifteen-years-old when the world changed forever. ‘It was about waiting for your favourite video, and not really knowing what hour it would hit, so you’d have to watch all day long.’ MTV had arrived with little warning, and almost overnight the youth of America were transfixed to their televisions, seduced by an eclectic mixture of music videos, interviews, and visually-arresting commercials. An entire generation were under its spell, and while record labels were as hesitant to embrace it as Hollywood was with home video, its immediate influence on pop culture was undeniable. And the Jackson family were no more immune to it than the rest of the country. ‘My brother, I’ll never forget, he’d say, ‘Michael, you gotta see this channel. Oh, my God, it’s the best idea. They show music videos twenty-four hours a day…Twenty-four hours a day!” he told Ebony decades later. ‘So I said, ‘Let me see this.’ And I’m watching it, I’m seeing all this stuff going on, and saying, ‘If only they could give this stuff some more entertainment value, more story, a little more dance, I’m sure people would love it more.’ So I said when I do something, it’s got to have a story – an opening, a middle, and a closing – so you could follow a linear thread; there’s got to be a thread through it. So while you are watching the entertainment value of it, you’re wondering what is going to happen.’ As his passion for this new concept began to grow, those close to him could see the spark of passion in his eyes. ‘Ever since Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles became the first video aired on MTV on 1 August, 1981, Michael had wanted to stand out within this new medium,’ explained his older brother and Jackson 5 bandmate Jermaine. ‘He felt the industry approach was lazy, going through the motions of executing just another promotional tool.’

Five months before the debut, its parent company, Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, revealed its intentions to launch a music channel that would be broadcast day and night, seven days a week. With the ability to air videos at very little cost, MTV seemed like a relatively low-risk business venture. John Lack, the new Vice President of Programming and Marketing at Warner Cable, had previously toyed with the concept on the short-lived Pop Clips, but it would be his young protégé, Robert Pittman, who explored the full potential of a music cable channel. ‘The videos were the toughest part of my job,’ he told the Los Angeles Times. ‘Very few record executives naturally warmed to the idea of MTV. I still remember lugging big white presentation charts with [co-founder] John Sykes to all the record companies to explain what MTV could do for them. We pointed out that radio wasn’t playing new music, especially all that new wave music from England. We promised that every other video would be a non-hit, something new. We would introduce the new wave to America. An easy promise, since most of the mainstay American artists had not done videos, and most of the unknown, new wave artists had. The reason you see the name of the artist, song, album, and record label at the beginning and end of the videos on MTV was an action we took in response to many radio stations of the early eighties, which deliberately didn’t identify the music they were playing. The theory was that you’d listen longer in an attempt to try to figure out the names of the songs. To induce the record companies to give us their support, we went the extra step of identifying the label, so that a potential buyer in an out-of-the-way town could even give a store all the information it needed to order the record; the promise of a sure-fire way to turn airplay on MTV into record sales for the record companies.’

In order to appeal to the youth market, Pittman and Sykes recruited a succession of young, attractive presenters – or VJs – in order to lend the format a modicum of glamour. Mark Goodman, who would remain on the channel until 1987, recalled the night of the first broadcast. ‘Technology wasn’t really ready for what MTV wanted to do at the time, and there was a fair amount of human error,’ he admitted forty years later. ‘We got through the rocket, we heard John Lock saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll,’ we saw the Buggles and Pat Benatar, and then there was a little glitch in the Pat Benatar video, and it stopped for twelve seconds.’ Despite something of a false start, by the end of 1981 it was clear that their experiment was a success. ‘The results from MTV markets showed that sixty per cent of the target audience had seen the channel. Eighty per cent were conscious of MTV’s existence,’ revealed author R. Serge Denisoff in the 1988 retrospective Inside MTV. ‘Pepsi was now convinced of the wisdom of its time buy. MTV would be on six-hundred CATVs and MSOs with some four-million households by May 1982; subscribers viewed the network on average 4.6 days a week, averaging one hour during the week. The viewing time was a bit less than Lack had predicted.’ By September 1984, the network had unveiled its latest gimmick, the MTV Video Music Awards, that would ultimately become one of the most coveted accolades in the industry. Almost overnight, the music video became the standard, and MTV was the only channel artists wished to be seen on. By the time that VH1 emerged in the mid-eighties to serve as its rival, created by its own parent company, MTV seemed unstoppable.’

MTV Logo

A silhouette is cast against a stone wall as a mysterious figure skulks in the shadows. Hiding his appearance behind a rain coat and trilby hat, he drops a cigarette to the ground and promptly stubs it out with his foot, watching impatiently as a young man strolls along the sidewalk. Making its debut shortly after the New Year of 1983, Billie Jean would mark the arrival of Michael Jackson on MTV. Ostensibly a performance piece boasting a loose narrative intended as a statement against the intrusive nature of the paparazzi, the five-minute promo video was not Jackson’s first flirtation with the medium, but it was the one that his record label had marketed towards the popular channel. ‘I presumed MTV would play what was a really great pop song, and so I was really surprised when I heard that it might not go on MTV after we finished it,’ revealed director Steve Barron. ‘I was confused as to why, because this video felt different; it felt extraordinary when I was making it, like beyond anything else that was out there, or beyond anything I’d ever seen in terms of movement, and style, and instinct. I thought it was going to be enormous, that everyone would have the reaction that we were having, and that all we had to do was show them. I thought it definitely would be seen everywhere. I just felt this absolutely wasn’t right. What do they mean, it isn’t their audience? Obviously, I was filled with suspicion about the real motives behind the non-acceptance of the video.’ With Epic, Jackson’s home since leaving Motown in the late seventies, having invested heavily in the success of the Thriller album, the label had recruited Irish filmmaker Barron, then best known for his work on Don’t You Forget About Me by the Human League. ‘This was the first single they had got a video for,’ he told In Focus of the creation of Billie Jean. ‘There is nothing like that moment when he actually danced. He’s up on his toes, spinning around, and I’m looking at this super-human creature through the camera, and it was steaming up with the intensity of what I was seeing.’

Despite the enigmatic pop video that Jackson and Barron had created, MTV seemed reluctant to promote the young star, prompting Jackson’s manager, Ron Weisner, to contact the head of CBS, the owner of Epic, to intercede on their behalf. It had not been the official policy of MTV to disregard African-American artists, but their playlist in the two years since their launch showed a bias towards Caucasian performers. ‘I remember taking a red-eye to New York, and going to MTV with a rough cut of Billie Jean, and MTV declining the video,’ claimed Weisner. ‘I sat down with Walter Yetnikoff. We then went to Bill Paley, and he and Walter told MTV, ‘This video is on by the end of the day, or CBS isn’t doing business with MTV anymore.’ The record company played hardball, and that was the day that changed history. That was the video that broke the colour barrier.’ Having risen through the ranks of CBS since first joining the label as an attorney in the early sixties, Yetnikoff had taken over as the CEO of CBS Records in 1975, and during his tenure he had attracted such renowned artists as Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. But his tenacity would make him an imposing figure, and his insistence that MTV add Jackson to their roster would open the door for other black artists. Although by the end of the decade hip-hop had become a staple of the channel, in 1983 it was still somewhat whitewashed. ‘It occurred to me, having watched MTV over the last few months, that it’s got its solid enterprise with it, and it’s got a lot going for it. I’m just floored by the fact that there’s so many, but so few black artists featured on it. And why is that?’ demanded David Bowie to Mark Goodman during the promotion of his 1983 album Let’s Dance. ‘It’s evident in the fact that the only few black artists that one does see are on here at about 2:30 in the morning, to around 6:00. Very few feature predominantly during the day.’

With Jackson having finally been accepted by the powers that be at MTV, he wasted no time in producing a second promotional video in support of his follow-up single, a rock track called Beat It. Released a mere six weeks after its predecessor, the video was financed personally by Jackson, and was developed in collaboration with Bob Giraldi. After working extensively in commercials during the seventies, Beat It would mark his first professional music video. ‘I had listened to his record and wanted to do the Billie Jean video, but his managers had already lined up a British director for it,’ he said. ‘After that, they decided that Beat It would be done by someone else. So I was in Santo Domingo with my family, Michael was in California, and we kept trying to call each other. One day my wife picked up the phone, and she hears, ‘Hello, is Bob there?’ It was Michael Jackson. She puts the phone down and says, ‘Bob, Michael Jackson sounds like a girl.’ I said, ‘Well, he certainly doesn’t dance like one.’ Anyway, we talked, and he told me it was a go. He said the song, to him, was nothing more than turning the other cheek. Michael Jackson’s never been in a gang war; Michael Jackson’s probably never been out of that house. I think the world knows he’s been watched and protected all his life. He just said, ‘Let’s do something street.” With speculations over his sexuality and effeminate persona constantly exploited by the press, the video for Beat It, which featured members of authentic Los Angeles gangs, was designed to reveal a different side of Jackson, one more aggressive and unwilling to compromise. If the video for Billie Jean had been a criticism against tabloid photographers, then Beat It was him defying his critics. ‘The gang members couldn’t dance, so they former the ring and watched,’ laughed Giraldi. ‘When Michael Jackson comes down and does what he does, I remember looking at the faces of all the Crips and Bloods lined up, and their expressions as they listened to that music, and watched those kids dance.’ 

Jackson and his label took a gamble going against MTV, but ultimately their risk paid off as the popularity of both music videos helped to propel Thriller to the top of the charts. And by the time the broadcast of Motown 25 came to an end on 16 May, 1983, he had become a superstar. And despite the reluctance of the channel to air his videos, he would help to pioneer the medium throughout the rest of the decade. ‘CBS Records and MTV both profited immensely from the success of Michael Jackson. But neither party can agree on how it happened, and each, in effect, says the other is lying. MTV says they loved Billie Jean and were happy to play it; CBS says MTV turned down the video, and played it only after the label threatened to pull its videos, which comprised a substantial part of MTV’s playlist,’ claimed Rob Rannenbaum and Craig Marks in I Want My MTV. ‘At first, MTV added Billie Jean in medium rotation, with two or three plays-per-day. It was bumped into heavy rotation a month later, only a week before MTV began to play Beat It. For eight weeks, both songs were in heavy rotation. Then Beat It dropped out, and after four more weeks, so did Billie Jean. By early summer, Michael Jackson was off MTV, even as Thriller remained number one.’ But his work on both Billie Jean and Beat It would soon be eclipsed by arguably one of the most ambitious music videos ever made, and one that would elevate the medium to even greater heights. And to achieve this, he turned to a song that some had dismissed as a novelty, a horror-themed jamboree that spoke of ghosts and ghouls, of graveyards, and long-forgotten tombs. While Beat It was an anthem of defiance, Thriller would have its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. 

II. Darkness Falls

Rod Temperton scribbled hastily on the scrap of paper that rested uncomfortably on his knee as the tax navigated its way through the streets of Los Angeles. The previous evening, he had been given a very important task, but a forgotten business meeting had taken up most of the morning, and now he was heading to the studio with little of the work he had promised fulfilled. Today’s session was to be an important one, and as he rushed to meet the screen legend that was to lend his vocal talents to the day’s proceedings, he had no idea what he wanted his celebrity guest to say. Temperton had initially conceived a song for Michael Jackson that was tentatively christened Starlight, but with his producer demanding an intriguing title for the album, he had renamed it Thriller. During the rewrites, the lyrics had begun to take on a somewhat macabre tone, and with Temperton having intended on creating a spoken word segment at the end of the track, he proposed that they recruit the services of a horror icon. At the suggestion of his producer, the legendary Quincy Jones, they turned to Edgar Allan Poe veteran Vincent Price. ‘The idea was going to be that he would just talk some horror talk from the type of lines he would deliver in some of his famous roles,’ recalled Temperton, who was contacted the evening before the session by a frantic Jones who feared that Price could arrive unprepared. Temperton agreed to write a monologue the following morning for their actor to recite and then turned in for the night, but when he awoke he realised the sudden pressure he was under. Price was only available for a short time and so there would be no possibility of a retake, but as Jones impatiently waited at the studio, his composer was rushed away to a pre-arranged lunch commitment. And even as their guest approached their rendezvous point, not a single word of dialogue had been written down.

Few have made as much of an indelible mark on the horror genre as Vincent Price, a recipient of two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the star of such cinematic classics as House of WaxThe Fly, and Theatre of Blood. Even as his popularity began to wane in the mid-seventies, Price found a new audience through his collaboration with shock rock pioneer Alice Cooper. His contribution to the critically acclaimed Welcome to My Nightmare would introduce him to a generation of rock ‘n’ roll fans who were unfamiliar with his film roles, and at the age of sixty-four, his career enjoyed something of a resurgence. ‘He enjoyed the fact that he seemed to be popular among musicians,’ wrote his daughter, Victoria Price. ‘Vincent had met the Jackson 5 in the sixties on a television show; always eager to appeal to younger audiences, he was delighted when Michael Jackson asked him to perform the rap on the album’s title song.’ By the early eighties, when Jones’ wife, actress Peggy Lipton, contacted Price with the proposition of Thriller, his work in the classic horror pictures of William Castle and Roger Corman had been rediscovered by such magazines as Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria. ‘I’ve done everything,’ he told the latter. ‘I’ve done musical work; I do a lot of symphony work; I do a lot of poetry; I do college lecturing, which is very much a part of my life. A lot of differing things. I know that makes people highly suspicious, because we’re a nation of specialisers, but I couldn’t care less. That’s the way I want to live my life, and the way I have.’ Having begun his recording career in 1956 with an album dedicated to the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Price would spend the next twenty years adapting Poe, and such forgotten works as A Graveyard of Ghost Tales.

Temperton had been tasked with delivering a monologue worthy of such an iconic character actor, and even as the session drew closer, he had yet to commit to his obligation. ‘I’d totally forgotten this, but my publisher from England had come over to America, and it had always been planned that we would have breakfast that next morning,’ continued Temperton. ‘And then at 12:10pm the phone rings, and it’s Quincy. He says, ‘How are you doing? Have you got something?’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll have something. I’m just finishing it off.’ I hung up, got a piece of paper, and frantically started to write some stuff. It was just one of those lucky times; it just flowed out of me. I’d written all the lyrics for the song, and the theme of the whole thing was so strong anyway, and it’s quite easy to visualise all these kinds of lines that Vincent Price would say. And so I started writing, and I wrote one verse while I was waiting for the taxi. I got in the taxi, and while I’m going to the studio I wrote two more whole verses. So I wrote three verses of poetry, or rap, and we only needed two in the end, anyway. And so I arrived at the studio, I saw a car pull up, and out steps Vincent Price.’ With the lyrics to Thriller utilising various clichés of the horror genre, the spoken word finale that Temperton wrote for Price detailed the witching house drawing near, and forces of evil rising from their resting place in search of souls to claim. And as his speech culminates with a message that resistance is futile, Price releases a demonic cackle at the expense of the listener. Thriller was quite unlike anything that Jackson had ever attempted before, but with low-budget horror movies once again dominating the box office and drive-ins across America, the song would be emblematic of its time.

In between the release of Music and Me in 1975 and Off the Wall, which debuted four years later, Michael Jackson underwent a fundamental transformation. Not only did puberty alter both his voice and physical appearance, but he migrated from his home at Motown to Epic. One of the key architects behind the Jackson that emerged in 1979 was Quincy Jones. The two had first crossed paths when Jackson was just a child, with a group of friends witnessing the Jackson 5’s breakthrough performance on the Ed Sullivan Show at the home of jazz legend Sammy Davis, Jr. Having already received an Emmy Award and several Academy Award nominations, Jones had started his career as a session musician for the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, before launching a highly-respected composing and producing career in the seventies. Five years after their initial meeting, Jackson and Jones collaborated on The Wiz, an adaptation of a successful Broadway musical that served as a reimagining of The Wizard of Oz. The two had been impressed with one another’s work on the motion picture, and when Jackson prepared to develop his first album for Epic, there was only one name he had in mind. ‘Michael Jackson and I wanted Quincy Jones to produce his first solo record, but the honchos at Epic balked, and this was baffling,’ claimed Jackson’s manager, Ron Weisner. ‘Quincy was known as a jazz arranger and composer; understandably, as he’d worked with everyone from Count Basie, to Ella Fitzgerald, to Cannonball Adderley. But he had pop, rock, and R&B chops to burn, as witnessed by his recordings with Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Billy Preston, not to mention the series of funky solo albums for A&M Records. If you were an executive at a major record label, circa 1980, you should have known that. They should have realised that getting Quincy Jones to produce an album for you was a coup.’

Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson

When Off the Wall was released in June 1979, it became an unexpected success, selling approximately two-million copies, and earned multi-Platinum sales. The album would also produce four Top Ten singles, the first two of which reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100. With Jackson’s first record for Epic having defied the expectations of both the label and music industry, he was only too eager to work with Jones once more. Having contributed to The Dude, the title track to Jones’ 1981 solo effort, Jackson reunited with his new producer friend to work on a soundtrack album to Steven Spielberg’s science fiction fantasy E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. But even as they devoted their time to this anticipated project, talk soon turned to Jackson’s follow-up to Off the Wall. ‘Michael and I got along well,’ said Jones. ‘When he was ready to record, I got my killer Q posse together: Rod Worms Temperton, one of the best songwriters who ever lived; Bruce Svensk Swedien, the guru of engineers worldwide, whom I’d known since the fifties, when we worked together with Basie and Dinah [Washington] in Chicago; and the A-team of Greg Mouse Phillinganes, a virtuoso keyboardist, who’d played hooky from school in Detroit to meet me five years earlier; Jerry Hey, a monster trumpeter and arranger, who was introduced to me during a seminar by Cannonball Adderley when Jerry was still a student at the University of Illinois at Champaign; Louis Thunderthumbs Johnson, the youngest of the Brothers Johnson, formerly with my band on the road, on Fender bass; John J.R. Robinson, a fellow Berklee alumni, and the drummer for Rufus; Paulinho da Costa from Brazil on percussion; and many others. I’ve always been blessed to work with some of the best in the business, and these were guys who were not only like a family of friends, but like my musical mafia; everyone was a black-belt master in their own category.’

Thriller would not be Rod Temperton’s first contribution to Michael Jackson, having been responsible for writing the number one hit Rock with You three years earlier. It was also Temperton who had christened the Off the Wall album and penned its title track, and so with Thriller he was given the task of bestowing the name of Jackson’s latest record. ‘Originally, when I did my demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, ‘Well, you came up with the title of the last album, see what you can do for this album,’ he explained. ‘I went back to the hotel, I wrote two or three hundred titles for this song. Then I came up with title Midnight. He said, ‘That’s a little bit more mystery, more where you should be heading.’ The next morning, I woke up and I just said this word. Something in my head just said, ‘This is the title.’ You could visualise it on top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising of this one word; it jumped off the page as Thriller.’ Having initially pursued his rock star dreams as a drummer, Temperton responded to an advert in Melody Maker to join the London-based funk group Heatwave. Following modest success in both the American and British charts, with the song Boogie Nights reaching number one in the United Kingdom, Temperton decided to dedicate himself to working as a professional songwriter for other artists, something that had become very lucrative by the end of the seventies with such writers as Desmond Child. Among his early collaborations were Donna Summer, Karen Carpenter, and Michael Jackson. Dubbed the Invisible Man due to his reluctance to talk to the press, Temperton would also be responsible for writing The Dude, which would mark his first reunion with Jackson and Jones following the success of Off the Wall.

While the melody and rhythm that Temperton created for Thriller owed a debt to disco, lyrically it recalled the gothic mausoleums of Hammer horror, and with the song conjuring up images of monsters rising from the dead, and the innocent falling foul of evil forces, the producers were able to improvise with the tools at their disposal. ‘When we did Thriller, the song, the opening in particular, Rob Temperton had conceived us to have wolf howls in it,’ revealed Off the Wall veteran Bruce Swedien to MusicRadar. ‘At the time, there was a Sherlock Holmes movie, The Hound of the Baskervilles, that had this huge dog, a Great Dane, that did some howling and, of course, I had that in my mind’s ear. I automatically thought of my Great Dane, who I figured ought to be in showbusiness. So I tried to get him to do those howls. And you know what? He never did it. We put him up in the barn at night to listen to the coyotes, and I had my tape machine ready to record him. He was a fantastic dog, two-hundred pounds; his name was Max. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be great to have him doing those howls on the record?’ But he just never got it together. He didn’t want to be in showbusiness. But you know who it is that is doing those wolf howls? That’s Michael Jackson. We had to get Michael to do it instead, but he did it so great. There’s some library stuff in there, but Michael did those wolf howls…For the creaking doors, I went to Universal Studios in Hollywood, the movie lot, and rented two or three sound effects doors, and brought them to Westlake [Studios], and spent a whole day auditioning these doors and miked the hinges real close. That is a real door, and I recorded that and added it on the track. Come to think of it, that might have been Michael doing those footsteps, too.’

Convinced that Thriller could be something more than just another album, Jackson lived and breathed the project from conception to completion, and thus, being so committed to his art, he struggled with the demands of being a perfectionist. ‘Michael became a man truly obsessed once he set his soul on creating Thriller,’ insisted Jermaine Jackson. ‘We understood his artistic need for space, so we hardly saw him for most of 1982, as he pushed himself beyond the point of fatigue to perfect Thriller. But when the finished album was played to him, he was devastated. It didn’t feel right and the final mix was off. ‘It’s like taking a great movie and ruining it in the editing,’ he wrote in his autobiography.’ One person who felt disillusioned by their experience on Thriller was Vincent Price. ‘In his usual eagerness to work, Vincent agreed to lend his famous voice for what amounted to a small honorarium; if only he had secured a royalty agreement, the album’s phenomenal sales might have brought his pecuniary paranoia to an end,’ claimed his daughter. ‘His work on Thriller simply followed this pattern; but when the album began making its millions, he was irate, feeling that Jackson should have materially acknowledged his significant contribution to the album’s success. In truth, he was also angry with himself for not having made a more sensible financial agreement; another evidence of his tendency to obsess over money troubles. Word eventually trickled back to Michael Jackson that my father was upset about the money. One day, I answered the door at my father’s house to find three members of Jackson’s entourage. They came bearing a gift; a letter of thanks from Jackson, and a large frame containing a poster of the pop star, and one Gold and two Platinum albums, all dedicated to Vincent. When I brought this gift to my father, his didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; at first, he opted for the former, by turning it into a faux alter, surrounded by candles and flowers.’ But if Vincent was frustrated by the success of the album, one can only imagine how he must have felt when, almost a year to the day after its release, Michael Jackson unveiled the video for Thriller.

III. Beast About to Strike

Located between the studios of Warner Bros. and Universal, and the suburb of Glendale, lies Griffith Park, its four-thousand acres attracting more than twelve-million visitors a year. Surrounded on two sides by the Los Angeles River, the land is home to a theatre, zoo, and an observatory, with hiking trails and golf courses cementing its reputation as a major California tourist attraction. Over the years, with Hollywood just a few miles away, Griffith has also served as a filming location for episodes of Gunsmoke and Star Trek, as well as countless motion pictures. It was late one autumn evening as the film crew gathered together in a wooded area of the park, where Michael Jackson, his face and hands covered in elaborate prosthetic make-up, stood casually drinking from a cup of soda as he awaited his director to call action. Dressed in a fifties-style letterman jacket, his yellow eyes glowing under the glare of the set lights, he said little to those who rushed to complete their tasks, his face growing uncomfortable under the tight rubber and thick contact lenses. John Landis, their master of ceremonies, watched his young star on the small monitor that sat by his cameraman, and as artists touched up his make-up in preparation for another take, Jackson was eager for the night to come to an end. As his female co-star prepared to react in terror to his hideous transformation, he passed his drink to one of the assistants and moved across to his mark, ready for his director to roll the camera once more. With Landis finally satisfied with the footage, he brought the day of work to an end, Jackson retreating back to the trailer in order for the prosthetics to be removed. With the lenses and fangs reclaimed by his lead artist, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, satisfied that the hardest part was over.

While he had never been much of a horror fan, and had even confessed that he was easily scared and repulsed by them, the seeds of Thriller were first sown when Michael Jackson caught a werewolf movie late one night on cable. While it boasted gruesome transformations and bloodletting, what had impressed him most was the film’s black comedy and self-awareness. Werewolves had long fallen out of favour with the public when An American Werewolf in London was released by Universal Pictures in August 1981. A postmodern retelling of the lycanthrope myth, the project had been in development for almost a decade, and had been a labour of love for its creator, John Landis. Despite being best known for his successful comedies Animal House and The Blues Brothers, Landis had made his feature debut in 1973 with the low-budget genre film Schlock. By the time An American Werewolf in London finally saw the light of day, it had been beaten to the box office by The Howling, another tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the mythical beast, while an adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s The Wolfen was released just four weeks before Landis’ movie. ‘A clever mixture of comedy and horror which succeeds in being both funny and scary,’ declared Variety. ‘An American Werewolf in London possesses an overriding eagerness to please that prevents it from becoming off-putting, and special effects freaks get more than their money’s worth.’ The story of two New York backpackers who are savaged by an unseen monster on the Yorkshire moors, only for one to inherit the curse, all the while suffering from visions of his butchered friend back from the dead, Landis enjoyed the greatest critical acclaim of his career, and one young viewer who was left affected by the film was Michael Jackson.

‘My inspiration was the old forties horror movie The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, which – usually – the werewolf was portrayed as a victim,’ explained Landis to the Guardian. ‘Films tended to show the transformation from man to wolf through dissolves, but I wanted to capture how painful the entire process would be; and make it painful to watch. Although the film did have a lot of comedy, I wanted to treat the violence realistically, to make it as terrible as violence always is.’ Although they have remained a fixture of the horror genre since the dawn of cinema, werewolves have rarely proved successful at the American box office. Its most lucrative era was during the forties and fifties, before Alfred Hitchcock’s sinister thriller Psycho moved the focus of evil from fantastic beasts to the fractured mind of the everyday man. Following Lon Chaney, Jr.’s recurring turn as the Wolf Man, the lycanthrope enjoyed other popular appearances in I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf. ‘Perhaps a contributing factor to the werewolf’s recent surge in popularity can be put down to one of the great themes in horror cinema: randomness,’ claimed author Bryan Senn. ‘Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad things happen to good people.’ When Landis began developing his own variant of the myth, he intended to approach it from a psychological perspective, in which he would explore the emotional reaction that the victim had once the curse began to take effect. ‘This was my attempt to make a movie dealing with the supernatural in a completely realistic way,’ he wrote in Monsters in the Movies. ‘Because there is no such thing as men who become monstrous wolves when there is a full moon, I tried to explore how one would react when confronted with this as truth. What do you do when the unreal is real? That was my premise, and An American Werewolf in London is the result.’

In the years between Landis conceiving his werewolf story and the release of the picture, special effects in the world of cinema would undergo a transformation of its own. While George Lucas would launch his own effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, in order to bring his ambitious Star Wars project to fruition, prosthetics had also evolved considerably, with this new revolution led by Emmy winner Dick Smith. ‘Smith’s prosthetics techniques, now standard in the make-up industry, had been controversial at the time,’ noted Jody Duncan in The Winston Effect. ‘Rather than create one-piece masks to affect a complete facial transformation, Smith had begun to experiment with overlapping smaller, individual prosthetic pieces; an approach he had refined with Little Big Man. ‘The movie make-up world has a tendency to be set in its ways,’ Smith remarked.’ Even as Smith began to attract acclaim for his work on The Godfather and The Exorcist, a new generation of young, ambitious artists emerged, plying their craft on all manner of low-budget pictures. During this time, the art of special effects was further developed by such rising stars as Rick Baker, Stan Winston, and Tom Savini. ‘My interest in make-up began when I was twelve-years-old, at my neighbourhood movie theatre in Pittsburgh, the Plaza. I saw the movie Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney. It was the story of Lon Chaney,’ recalled Savini in his book Grande Illusions. ‘It’s not enough for me to say that movie sparked my interest in make-up; something more happened to me. I flipped out. I went mad over it. Here I was, a twelve-year-old little Italian kid from a relatively poor neighbourhood, watching a man become many different people, and leading many lives through make-up and the movies. This was for me. I changed immediately.’ By the end of the seventies, successful horror films such as The OmenDawn of the Dead, and Alien demonstrated that now cinema was only limited by the imagination of the filmmakers, and as the eighties began, so did the era of the splatter movie.

Rick Baker; An American Werewolf in London

‘I worked on John Landis’ first film, 1973’s Schlock; he had already written American Werewolf, and told me the whole story. He said it was going to be his next film, and I was really excited,’ explained Rick Baker. In the years that followed, Baker became one of the most revered special effects artists in the industry, balancing such respected films as King Kong and Star Wars with B-movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man, but by 1980 he believed that the Landis werewolf project had been abandoned. ‘I got a call from Joe Dante, saying, ‘We want to do this werewolf movie, would you be interested?’ I said yeah, but after I’d started working on it, Landis called and said, ‘Good news! We’re going to do American Werewolf.’ I had to make it right, so I turned The Howling over to my protégé, Rob Bottin.’ As special effects became more advanced, Landis became more ambitious, and through the various rewrites, he decided that he wanted to depict the man-to-wolf transformation in uncensored detail. ‘I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the werewolf idea back then; we didn’t have the technology ten years ago that we have now, so we weren’t going to be so elaborate with it,’ Baker told Fangoria in 1981. ‘John wanted a spectacular transformation, but originally he didn’t intend to show the wolf. At one point, he even talked about using a dog for the wolf. Ten years later, it’s still basically the same film, with some changes and, of course, modernised technology. The transformation scene was still the part I was most interested in doing. I’d always wanted to do one.’ With actor David Naughton subjected to Baker’s extensive prosthetic process, Landis was able to show the transformation in real time, horrifying audiences and delighting horror fans the world over.’

The effect that watching the transformation sequence had on Jackson was significant enough that by the time the movie had come to an end, he knew who he wanted for his Thriller concept. But the experience of working with prosthetics is far less glamorous than many cinemagoers may believe. ‘We shot it at the very end of production,’ said Naughton in an interview with Yahoo. ‘We wrapped the whole movie, and then did the transformation. It was really fun to watch people from the back of the theatre when that happened. People were freaked out! I got a kick out of that…Actors will tell you, they can go right along with make-up right up until a certain point where they start messing with your eyes. It’s like when you’re getting those moulds made; you’re okay with it until you can’t hear because your ears are stuffed, and then your mouth is stuffed with it, and then you’re just trying to breathe, thinking, ‘How long is this going to take?’ I keep talking about it like it’s pain and torture, but we all knew there was going to be a big payoff.’ Even though he knew his own transformation would be an uncomfortable experience, Jackson was unable to put An American Werewolf in London out of his mind, and the more he thought about it, the more obsessed he became with making his own monster movie. While he had already worked with make-up on The Wiz, that would be nothing compared to what he now demanded of himself, and it was Landis’ movie that had convinced him of this. ‘I saw An American Werewolf in London,’ he confirmed. ‘We really, really liked it, because it was a different type of horror movie. It was comedy and horror. I said,’ Who’s the director?’ And he said, ‘John Landis! John Landis!’ I said,’ Great, that’s who we’ve got to get in touch with.’’

John Landis would first hear of Michael Jackson’s interest in his work at the most unexpected moment. ‘It was around 2am and I was asleep, in London, the first time Michael Jackson called me,’ he laughed. ‘He told me how much he admired my film An American Werewolf in London, and asked if it would be possible for me to direct a music video in which he could turn into a monster. I explained to him that London was eight hours ahead of L.A. I said I would call him when I got back to L.A. in a couple of weeks. Then I went back to sleep. We spoke on the phone four or five times before I returned to California. Michael told me he wanted to make a music video for the song Thriller, and that in the video he wanted to go through the same kind of transformation, from a two-legged man into a four-legged beast, that was in An American Werewolf in London. Rick Baker, who won the first ever Academy Award for Best Make-up for An American Werewolf in London, and I showed Michael movie books filled with photographs of monsters. He found most of the pictures too scary. We came to the conclusion that if Michael was going to dance, it would be a hell of a lot easier for his monster to have two legs instead of four.’ Prior to Thriller, music videos had served as a way for directors to progress to feature films, and was not seen as a medium that established filmmakers would participate in. And after discussing with Landis, Baker slowly became enthusiastic over the project.. ‘Landis sent me a copy of Thriller, and I listened and listened to it, put together some ideas, things I’d like to try,’ detailed Baker. ‘We had come up with some ideas that I found pretty exciting, particularly the dancing zombies. For a long time, I’ve wanted to do a straight horror film with some zombies in it that would, at some point in the middle of the film, break into a song and dance – a song about blood and guts; having them pull guts out of people while singing and dancing – and then have it go right back to a straight horror movie after that.’

Such an ambitious project, however, would require a substantial budget, one that far exceeded the kind of fee a record label was willing to pay for a music video in 1983. ‘Basically, I thought about it, and my intention was to exploit Michael’s unbelievable celebrity at that point to make a theatrical short, a fourteen-minute short,’ explained Landis. ‘George Folsey, Jr., my producer and editor on a lot of things, and I worked the budget. I insisted it would be a union short – almost all videos at that time were non-union – and I also insisted the dancers have at least ten days of rehearsals, which is also never done because it’s so expensive. And we put it all down, and the bottom line was that we worked out it would cost about half a million dollars. Which is a huge amount of money, because at that time the most a video had been was, I think, $100,000. He called Walter Yetnikoff, and he talked to him for a couple of minutes, telling him what I wanted to do, and then he handed me the phone. I said, ‘Hello?’ And then this, this blast of flaming, ‘You motherfucker! What the fuck’s the matter with you?’ The one conversation I ever had with Walter Yetnikoff. You know in the movies where they hold the phone away? It was like that. He was screaming. The essence of Yetnikoff’s rant was, this album had already become the most successful album, it’s had a year at number one, it’s now going down, and it’s still selling respectably. ‘And fuck your video, and fuck you.’ I handed Michael the phone back, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s okay, I’ll pay.’ And I said, ‘Michael, I can’t spend your money.’’ And so in order to finance the most expensive music video that had ever been created at that time, Landis and Jackson were forced to be creative in order to sell their product.

IV. Their Masquerade

Depending on whose version of events are to be believed, it was either Michael Jackson’s lawyer, or John Landis’ business partner, that proposed the idea that would make the Thriller video a reality. ‘The technical details of the film were so awesome that I soon got a call from John Branca, my attorney, and one of my closest and most valued advisors,’ wrote Jackson in Moonwalk, his 1988 memoir. ‘John had been working with me ever since the Off the Wall days; in fact. He even helped me out by donning many hats, and functioning in several capacities when I had no manager after Thriller was released. He’s one of those extremely talented, capable men who can do anything. Anyway, John was in a panic, because it had become obvious to him that the original budget for the Thriller video was going to be doubled. I was paying for this project myself, so the money for the budget overruns was coming out of my pocket. But at this point, John came up with a great idea. He suggested we make a separate video, financed by somebody else, about the making of the Thriller video. It seemed odd that no one had ever done this before. We felt it would be an interesting documentary, and at the same time, it would help pay for our doubled budget. It didn’t take long to put this deal together.’ In a 2018 interview with the Telegraph, Landis cited his producer, George Folsey, Jr., as the one responsible for this business plan. ‘George’s idea was, ‘Why don’t we film us filming it, and then we can make a forty-five minute documentary called The Making of Thriller? Then in total that’s an hour,’’ he claimed. ‘And then sell that to get the money to make Thriller.’

According to an article published by Variety in 2010, in reality it was both Branca and Folsey that worked together to bring this unprecedented deal together. With the behind-the-scenes footage shot on 16mm by Jerry Kramer, who would direct Jackson’s ambitious feature film Moonwalker five years later, the intention was to pair the fourteen-minute music video with the forty-five minute documentary, so that the hour film would qualify for both cable broadcast and home video release. MTV was initially reluctant to fund the project, as they had built an enterprise over the two previous years without paying substantial fees to play music videos, and so took issue with financing a documentary. But when another channel, Showtime, agreed to contribute £300,000, MTV finally offered $250,000 to the producers. As a result of this deal, Vestron Video, a recently-formed home entertainment company based in Connecticut, joined the product as distributor, which would release the film on VHS following its television debut. ‘You have to remember, back in those days, none of us realised quite what home video was going to become,’ said Folsey years later. ‘The studios treated it pretty much the same way they treated television in the fifties and sixties; with total disdain. They had no idea that the home video business was going to save Hollywood. It never crossed their minds.’ With motion pictures having been synonymous with the big screen ever since moving images were first broadcast to a paying audience, the movie industry has reviewed each technical revolution as a threat to box office success, but with viewers eager to indulge in film any way they can, the arrival of television failed to kill the cinemagoing experience. And so when home video arrived in the late seventies, major studios refused to embrace this new concept. But even more than MTV, home video would change the world forever.

For decades, electronic manufacturers had attempted to perfect the home entertainment system. Ever since the television set first entered the family home in the fifties, the world’s leading technological experts searched tirelessly for a way to allow the customer more options on what they could watch, instead of merely relying on a network’s pre-programmed schedule. In the years following the Second World War, Japanese industrialist Masaru Ibuka began developing a prototype tape recorder that he dubbed the G-Model Tapecorder through his new company Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo. Within a decade they were rebranded as Sony, and after taking inspiration from rival company Ampex, released the SV-201 in 1961. Other devices would follow, such as the U-matic, before an American manufacturing company pushed the envelope with their own creation, Cartrivision. But in 1976, after decades of experimentation and failed product launches, Sony unveiled the Betamax. In retaliation, Universal filed a lawsuit against the company over what they considered to be a major copyright issue. The device was marketed as a way for customers to watch one show while recording another channel. Universal, however, feared this would lead to piracy, and so sought the assistance of other Hollywood studios, resulting in an alliance with Disney. But JVC believed they could advance the format even further and so released their own variation: the VHS. With studios initially unwilling to embrace this new format, the home video market was soon dominated by independent distributors and entrepreneurs, and by 1982 the majority of available titles were low-budget exploitation and European art-house. The first major release would come with Jane Fonda’s Workout, an exercise video starring the controversial actress, that became an instant bestseller. Fox and Warner Bros. were the first studios to flirt with the potential of home video, but as their releases gained popularity with the public, others resultantly launched their own brands.

‘By the summer of 1981, Disney, Paramount, Columbia, and MGM (in a short-lived partnership with CBS) had followed Fox and Warner Bros. into the market known as home video,’ documented James Lardner in Fast Forward: Hollywood, the Japanese, and the Onslaught of the VCR. ‘Pornography accounted for a large share of the business to begin with; in part, because the producers of adult movies – unhindered by a prejudice against the new medium – had been the first suppliers. As time passed, the allure faded slightly, at least in relative terms; and some dealers found that the presence of X-rated movies in their stores alienated as much business as it attracted.’ Major studios, meanwhile, focused on more respected titles, but it seemed that the video market was set to be a playground for violence and sexually-explicit smut. With Universal’s lawsuit doing little to slow down the momentum, by 1983 those that could afford the expensive device already had one in their home. Both Betamax and VHS had their positive attributes. The Betamax boasted superior picture and audio, but with the VHS proving more affordable for both manufacturer and customer, distributors came to favour the latter. ‘Tokyo Sanyo Electric is increasing its production capacity for VHS VCRs to a hundred-and-sixty-thousand units a month by the end of this year, up sixty per cent on its output capacity for May,’ reported Billboard in July 1984. ‘In June, Kaizuka Sanyo, a Sanyo subsidiary which had been producing Beta VCRs, came under the management of Tokyo Sanyo, and started producing thirty-thousand VHS VCRs a month. Even with a total production of a hundred-and-thirty-thousand a month, the company says it can’t meet increasing demands, particularly from the U.S. Within the Sanyo group, the gap between Beta and VHS production is narrowing fast, and VHS is likely to become the dominant format in 1985.’

Michael Jackson and Rick Baker

Even as Branca and Folsey attempted to negotiate a deal between the three parties, mainstream motion pictures began to rule the home video chart. Fonda continued to dominate the sales, but Tobe Hooper’s supernatural horror Poltergeist, distributed by MGM/UA, took the rental top spot. Other blockbusters to find success on the small screen included Rocky III, Superman II, and Tron. The adult brand Playboy became a Top Ten success, while other popular titles of different mediums included The Complete Beatles and Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. ‘By the time Americans started to buy VCRs, the theatre and the television represented two very different contexts for entertainment: one public, one domestic,’ claimed Joshua M. Greenberg in From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video. ‘The television had replaced the hearth as the focal point of American living rooms, and families who, a century before, might have gathered around the fire, now gathered around their television sets.’ With the price of both tape recorders and video cassettes gradually becoming more affordable, the prospect of releasing Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller seemed like a sound investment. And who better to conquer the home video market than Michael Jackson? ‘It seemed for a while that nobody could say no to a Jackson video,’ said Reuters. ‘Former Epic Records president David Glew, who came to the label a year after Bad was released, and later became chairman, before retiring in 2007, remembers Jackson saying, ’’These are not videos; I make short films.’ Every time our marketing guys would say video, he would say, ‘No, short films. You tell your team they’re short films.’ The video was almost as important to him as the record. And if it were up to him, he would have made a video of every track on the record.’

But not every artist shared Jackson’s passion for music videos and MTV, with many feeling that it diminished their work and cheapened their image. ‘As MTV’s powers grew, videos became more important than radio,’ lambasted Ann Wilson, the lead vocalist of Heart. ‘We spent a fortune on videos. Though the record label advanced the costs, they ultimately came out of our royalties. Budgets mushroomed upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a three-minute clip. And as the directors, stylists, choreographers, and hairdressers increased, we’d be on set with a hundred people telling us what to do. It was no longer our show.’ Other artists, meanwhile, felt that the music video had become stale and more preposterous as record companies and movie studios sunk their corporate teeth into it. ‘In its initial form, video was a revolution,’ admitted Adam Ant in I Want My MTV. ‘Then MTV became worse than the record companies, and that’s fucking saying something. That’s harsh, but it became very decadent, like ancient Rome in a way. It was all about who you knew, and how many bottles of champagne you sent them. It began as a tough, groundbreaking, sexy, subversive, stylish thing with a sense of humour. Then it became all business. I think the golden era ended with Michael Jackson, ironically. You got John Landis in, and you can’t compete with that, because that was big fucking money.’ Yet while many of his contemporaries failed to keep up, Jackson was more than willing to lead the way. ‘It heralded the start of a storytelling, cinematic approach to music videos,’ confirmed Jermaine Jackson. ‘Michael’s thinking outside the box took everyone else with him. He reset the rules and standard with everything he did.’

Jackson’s dedication to creating a piece of cinema extended beyond the visuals, with the star and his director demanding the video have the best audio possible. Many early music videos had been plagued with inferior sound, but this would not be acceptable for Thriller. ‘The soundtrack for Thriller, I said, ‘This is a movie, it’s not a rock video,’’ insisted Landis. ‘Rock videos are always needle drops. A record at that time was mixed to sound good on your car radio, so, I said, ‘This is a movie.’ So I asked Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien, ‘Can I have the tracks to Thriller?’ They both said no. I explained to Michael we needed them. So George Folsey, and I, and Michael, at like two in the morning, went to the recording studio, walked in the lobby, the guard, said, ‘Hello Mr. Jackson.’ ‘Hello.’ We went in the back, found the tracks on the racks, took all of them – there were a lot – put them in two big duffel bags, put them in the trunk in a car, drove them over the hill, where they duplicated them all. We put them back in the duffel bags, went back with Michael over the hill, and put them back. I’ve always been amazed that Bruce Swedien and Quincy have never said anything, because Thriller is very different than the record. I only used a third of the lyrics. It’s a three-minute song; in the film, it plays for eleven minutes. Well now, through new technology called Atmos, you can put sound anywhere in the house. It’s amazing: I had to relearn that, because music is always left-right-centre, and suddenly how the fuck do you mix this, because it’s everywhere? But we were able to bring it up, and it’s astounding.’ Whether or not Jones and Swedien were ever aware of the temporary theft may never be known, but after the trio’s late-night excavation to Westlake Studios, Landis had the soundtrack he needed for Thriller. Now he just needed to create the visuals.

Despite his passion, Jackson was not the only one who felt that music videos were a tool that had not reached its full potential. ‘Up until director John Landis paired Michael with a bunch of zombies, we were extremely conscious about our video budget, because we weren’t looking to make The Empire Strikes Back. All we wanted was a good clip that a, was representative of the music, and b, the fans would be willing to watch over and over again,’ reflected Weisner in Listen Out Loud: A Life in Music. ‘To us, music on television was unchartered territory that needed to be explored, and explored hard, because listeners had no way to find out how their favourite artists moved or spoke, and the only visuals came from album covers or magazine articles. We envisioned singers and bands on the tube as a new paradigm, a different, vital way in which to present (and sell) our artists.’ Thriller would not be Landis’ first attempt at marrying visuals and music together, as just three years earlier, he had adapted the Saturday Night Live sketch The Blues Brothers with co-writer Dan Aykroyd, which became both a critical and commercial success. Music had even been at the back of his mind when he developed the horror picture that first brought him to the attention of Jackson. ‘In An American Werewolf in London, when I wrote it, pop songs weren’t really used in movies,’ he told Entertainment.ie. ‘They were performed in the film, but the movie that really started the trend of using pop songs as soundtrack…people think it’s George Lucas and American Graffiti, but in fact, it was Mike Nichols and The Graduate. He basically scored the film with Simon and Garfunkel songs written for the film, but nonetheless, it was sort of new. Then, of course, George Lucas with American Graffiti; he used Wolfman Jack as a sort of Greek chorus, and used the radio as source music. But with An American Werewolf in London, I wrote that in ’69, and all the songs are indicated.’ But despite The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London, with Thriller, Landis brought music and images together in a truly breathtaking way.

V. Something Evil’s Lurking

When the cameras on Thriller finally started rolling on the streets of Los Angeles on 11 October, 1983, Michael Jackson had already mentally prepared himself for the discomfort that he would endure throughout the shoot. He had spent countless hours in the chair of Rick Baker, having remained motionless as a mould of his face was cast, so the crew could then create a foam rubber appliance, complete with bladders to simulate pulsating muscles as his body underwent the metamorphosis, as well as artificial hair, fangs, and contact lenses. But no matter how unpleasant the process was, it was Jackson himself who had demanded it. ‘He wanted to turn into a monster,’ insisted John Landis. ‘And the first discussion with Rick Baker, he wanted to turn into the werewolf from An American Werewolf in London, and it took me a while to talk him out of it, because I was saying it’d be really hard to dance with four legs. That’s why he became that werecat thing, because I suggested the werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, in the letterman’s jacket. Rick’s first design, which was great, was too ugly. I said, ‘Look, it’s Michael. He can’t be ugly.’ I think what he made was very elegant, that sort of cat creature.’ Baker also attempted to convince Jackson to rethink his obsession with An American Werewolf in London. ‘I’d wanted to talk Michael out of the transformation, just because so many of them had been done, even on TV with Manimal,’ he explained. ‘Michael, though, was really set on turning into a werewolf. At least I was able to talk him out of going for a normal werewolf; I suggested a more cat-like creature, which I thought was more appropriate for Michael, and at least it was something slightly different, that would allow me a little more fun with the design. Michael liked that idea.’

As one walks into the workshop of a professional make-up artist for the first time, it is like stepping into another world, with monstrous heads and all manner of craft tools scattered around the room. Some, such as Stan Winston’s studio, is spotless and almost regimental in its efficiency, while others feel a little more chaotic, but all have a sense of wonder and creation about them. This is where the magic happens. ‘When I first walked into Rick’s studio, it was like a museum of horror,’ recalled Jackson on his introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Rick Baker. ‘All these faces, I was so amazed! There’s one that’s just a head and it’s split open; all these organs are gushing out, and its brains. It’s disgusting, really. And it’s brilliant. He’s an incredible artist.’ What would shock both Landis and Baker during their initial meeting was how few horror movies he had actually seen, and how little knowledge he had of the genre. ‘When we found out he hadn’t seen Bride of Frankenstein, we started reeling off all these names of films, and it turned out he’d seen very few. He’d seen An American Werewolf in LondonThe Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton, which he also loved, and The Elephant Man. That’s about it,’ scoffed Baker. ‘Early on, I’d suggested a couple of winged demons, and Michael said definitely no demons. So I had reason to doubt that he’d want to turn into a really monstrous monster, and the original concept I had for this was a sort of demonic cat monster; after Michael said no demons, my design sketches were of a pretty sort of black panther monster. Then we found out that Stan Winston was doing a black panther transformation for Manimal, so I was able to revise our design, and do something much closer to what I’d originally wanted, after all. We had about five weeks of pre-production time, which is really no time at all, considering that we had an elaborate transformation to do, and about thirty different foam appliances to complete.’

Even though Jackson was eager to transform into a monster, the experience of being subjected to heavy prosthetics can be unpleasant, and even results in panic attacks if the subject does not remain calm. To be cut off from most senses as the mould is created, these feelings of being trapped can on occasion prove distressing, and so it is important for the artist to keep the actor calm throughout the process. ‘Feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety can also be a reaction for some actors enclosed in a mould, and it can seem to gain weight the longer it’s on the subject,’ said fantasy veteran Todd Debreceni in his summary Special Make-Up Effects for Stage and Screen: Making and Applying Prosthetics. ‘When life-casting the face, you must take great care so that the actor can continue to breath when a mould covers her mouth and nose; the nostrils must be left clear, but not with straws. There are two reasons not to use straws in a subject’s nose when making a life-cast: the straw changes the shape of the nose, and even the very slightest of bumps will cause a rather good nosebleed. Don’t ask me how I know that.’ Having developed his craft under the tutelage of the legendary Dick Smith, Rick Baker was the consummate professional, and through his acclaimed work on King Kong, he became a master of prosthetics. ‘Michael and I became fairly close after Thriller. He came to my house a couple of times to watch movies and have dinner, and I went to his place to have dinner with Michael and Bubbles, the chimp,’ revealed Baker. ‘And Michael actually dedicated a song to me. It’s called Threatened, and I think he was trying to make another Thriller.’ With both the hero and monster personified by Michael Jackson, the filmmakers’ next task was casting the role of his girlfriend who, in true fashion, would need the perfect scream.

The walls of the office were layered with numerous headshots of attractive young women, each one displaying their own unique beauty that they hoped would attract the attention of eager producers. As she stepped into the room, Ola Ray glanced across at the photographs of her rivals and then adopted her fame face, determined for this coveted role to become her own. For every young model in town, the opportunity to portray the onscreen girlfriend of the year’s biggest star, Michael Jackson, was a dream come true, and as Landis waited behind his desk to greet her, she knew that this was the big break she had been waiting for. Among the faces staring back at her were nineteen-year-old Jennifer Beals, fresh from her success with the musical drama Flashdance, and Harry Belafonte’s daughter, Shari. Twenty-three-year-old Ray took her seat opposite Landis and listened intently as he explained what would be required of her, should she be fortunate to land the part, and following his summary of the project, she demanded that the role be hers. ‘If you’re an actress, it’s easy to become callous about auditions, because you don’t get every role you go up for,’ she said. ‘But when I met John Landis, and found out whoever got the part would play Michael’s girlfriend, and that the video would cost so much, I got excited. It’s always hard to tell, but when I met with Landis, I felt I’d already gotten the part.’ Both Billie Jean and Beat It had demonstrated Jackson’s superstar status, and so expectations were high for his most ambitious video yet. For the role of his lover, the chosen actress would be required to run, scream, react, walk seductively, and watch in awe as Jackson and his horde of zombies performed a choreographed dance late one evening on Union Pacific Avenue in Los Angeles.

Ola Ray

The youngest of eight children, Ola Ray was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, before her family relocated to Japan when their father was stationed in Tokyo by the United States Army. During this time, she began to develop an interest in modelling and performing. ‘I formed a dancing and singing group with my twin brothers,’ she told Playboy. ‘We would hop on the train and head down to the clubs in the Ginza. We called ourselves the Soul Train Puppets. We’d sing and dance to songs by L.T.D., Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Dramatics. A lot of the guys in the clubs belonged to the Japanese mafia. You could tell by their tattoos. If one of their fingers was missing, it meant they’d messed up. Most Japanese are quite nice. They are warm, close people. If we were lost, they would get in a cab and take us where we wanted to go. And the discos were terrific. In the U.S., men ask women to dance. in Japan, everyone gets up to dance. If someone has a new step, everyone stops and watches. The next thing you know, everyone is doing it.’ But when she returned to the United States, she found herself struggling to find modelling work. ‘In the orient, height is not a factor since most of the people there are just a little over five feet,’ she claimed. ‘But in America, the average model’s height approaches six feet, and I’m only five-foot-five.’ Back in America and desperate to pursue her new career, Ray auditioned for modelling and acting assignments, but with her height falling short of the industry standard, she remained unemployed. But shortly before leaving Tokyo, she was given one piece of advice on how she could model in America, and despite her initial reluctance, contacted the West Coast office of a popular magazine, one that specialised in photographing beautiful young women.

‘My agent told me if I wanted to get back into the business in the U.S., that I had to go through Playboy, because they weren’t using a lot of models my height,’ she explained to Vice. ‘When I was thumbing through Playboy, and saw all these entertainers at the Playboy mansion, I thought, ‘If I do this, then I can get up there, meet them, and make some movies. There were a couple of black centrefolds before I did the centrefold, but they hadn’t had one in a long time. My whole family, who was very religious in the Catholic church, understood I was using it as a stepping-stone. After my Playboy issue came out, the phone started ringing. I got the Classy Curl spokesperson gig. They flew me around the world, sponsoring their product. They even put me on a Win a Date with Ola Ray contest.’ Following her appearance as a Playmate in June 1980, during which she referenced Michael Jackson among her favourite artists, Ray began auditioning for motion pictures, landing the role of Dawn, a lady of the night, in Ron Howard’s sex comedy Night Shift. This was soon followed by the Eddie Murphy hit 48 Hrs., and the Charles Bronson action flick 10 to Midnight. ‘Around that time, my agent sent me out on an interview for the Thriller video,’ she continued. ‘Two weeks later, I’m sitting at home, my phone rings, and they tell me I have it. I’m like, Yaah!’ Michael Jackson and I met in the wardrobe room. I saw his shiny shoes first. He was so cute with his little bow-tie. I’ll never forget that. He has such a presence. You can feel his energy across the room.’

Within just a short time, Ola Ray transcended from a Playboy model and struggling actress to the co-star of a Michael Jackson music video, and the first time fans were introduced to her was when the couple took a quiet stroll among the trees, only for a full moon to reveal the beast within him. ‘The twenty-five-year-old star was creatively on fire, and canny about his career. It was Jackson who concocted the werewolf on a date concept for his album’s third video,’ recalled journalist Nancy Griffith who, along with photographer Douglas Kirkland, arrived on the set of Thriller to write an article for Life. ‘The video had to be funny, as well as spooky, because, ‘I was never a horror fan,’ Jackson said. ‘I was too scared. I liked Vincent Price.’ Quincy Jones had drafted Price to narrate the ‘funk of forty-thousand years’ rap at the song’s end. The script called for Michael to appear in three distinct incarnations: normal eighties Michael, Michael as a fifties guy on a date, who turns into a werewolf (including the requisite ‘transformation’ shot), and a ghoul who boogies down with his undead posse. A few nights after the Palace Theatre scene, the production was ensconced in a wooden section of Griffith Park, with Michael in front of the cameras in a red baseball jacket and full werewolf make-up. Landis was coaching him on how to act like a fearsome beast, which was a stretch for the soft-spoken, ninety-nine pound star. The director demonstrated how he wanted Jackson to lunge and growl at Ola Ray as she shrieked in terror. ‘Go get her!’ he prompted. ‘She looks delicious. Rrrrr!’ The yellow contact lenses Jackson was wearing hurt, and he winced between takes. Make-up impresario Rick Baker had been given creative latitude in designing Jackson’s look, and veered it towards a werecat, rather than a werewolf. ‘Because it was Michael, we couldn’t go for a standard monster,’ he explained.’

While much of the success of the Thriller video is attributes to the make-up of Rick Baker, John Landis brought another graduate of An American Werewolf in London to assist in the creation of the music video: his wife. ‘Costumes are one of the tools a film director has to tell a story,’ wrote Deborah Nadoolman Landis in the introduction to 50 Designs, 50 Constumes: Concept to Character. ‘Costumes provide essential information to the audience.’ Having first worked with John Landis on her film debut, The Kentucky Fried Movie, in 1977, she soon gained acclaim for her work in the industry after designing the iconic look of Harrison Ford in the 1981 action-adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark. Marrying in 1980, the pair would also work together on Animal House and The Blues Brothers, before creating Jackson’s outfit for Thriller. ‘When I say to someone, ‘Oh yeah, I designed Michael Jackson’s jacket in Thriller,’ I don’t believe it,’ she laughed. ‘Michael’s in a movie theatre, he was on a date, then he left the movie theatre, he danced in a dark alley: what was the colour that really captured the moment? That captured the spirit of a horror film? Surrounded by zombies; what wold really, really make sense? And the making sense is the criteria we use the most; narratively, and visually. That’s reductive design. I came up with that red look. I think it just works on every level. And I really felt like I wanted to build out his body. He was not a very big person. I like to say he was ninety-nine pounds ringing wet! He had a twenty-seven or twenty-eight inch waist, his shoulders were extremely narrow, he weighed practically nothing. It was deliberate bodybuilding on my part.’ With the werewolf segment of the video complete, and Jackson having adopted the image that would become a Halloween look for decades to come, he was about to spend the next few nights with the living dead.

VI. In Search of Blood

A thick fog gently flowed out across the graveyard, like the tide massaging the sand, as it enveloped itself around long-forgotten crypts and mausoleums. Through the mist, the earth started to turn and crumble as something from below desperately tried to reach the surface. Fingers finally penetrated the dirt, feeling a breeze that had not touched its skin in decades. The arm extended out and grabbed the soil, clutching it with all its might and crawling from its resting place. As its eyes opened to see the world once more, the ground surrounding a nearby coffin also began to stir, and before long a second figure made its way back to the land of the living. As the fog wrapped itself around the cemetery like a mother holding a new-born to its bosom, each vault and tomb was disturbed, with the rotten dead seemingly returning to life and discarding their places of refuge, and as they stumbled through the dark towards one another, their wretched stench filled the air. But the graveyard can no longer hold these forsaken souls and so they ventured out into the night, marching through the streets like some macabre parade. The young couple, having made peace over their earlier argument at the theatre, walked carefree along the sidewalk, hand-in-hand as they shared this loving moment together. But they suddenly came to an abrupt halt, their eyes wide with fear as they saw death and decay all around them. Standing close together, they found themselves surrounded by these ghastly ghouls and realised there is no escape. As these decomposing corpses staggered towards them, their hands reaching out to tear at their flesh, she turned to her lover in the hope that he can save her, but to her horror he had already been claimed by them. His skin a deathly grey, his eyes piercing with an unnatural intensity, he stared deep into her soul as the strangers gathered beside him. She was unable to move, unable to scream, and unwilling to believe what she saw before her eyes.

Rick Baker knew this was an impossible task. In just a few short weeks he was to create a werewolf that would be shot in close-up, and dozens of zombies, each one of these living dead being unique from the others. Even for a film that would only run for fourteen minutes, he knew that the odds were against him. ‘The biggest challenge to this film was to be able to get the amount of work we had to get done, done in the time that we had,’ he revealed. ‘At one point, there’s about thirty different zombies that we created. We had twenty make-up artists, all working putting appliances on zombies, and painting them all up. It’s the largest make-up crew I’ve ever had.’ Despite the rushed pre-production schedule, Baker and his crew worked tirelessly to bring the dead back to life. ‘You start with the casting of the actor’s face, then the latex, the contact lenses,’ explained Baker. ‘Normally, you would make a cast of every actor’s face, but we’d only have three days from meeting the dancers to finishing their faces, so we couldn’t do it that way. I wasn’t too happy about that, but in the end we made three sizes of zombie mask. We couldn’t do the teeth how we normally would, either. I suggested that myself and the crew be zombies, so that we could have a few that were done properly, because we could have more time to work on the make-up.’ Baker and his crew would make brief appearances during the resurrection sequence that accompanied the Vincent Price rap, but once the zombies joined Michael Jackson, each one would be a professional dancer. This half of the music video allowed Baker to indulge in zombies which, during the early eighties, were enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity. The success of Dawn of the Dead had given rise to a new wave of zombie pictures, many of which were gruesome exploitation films produced in Europe, and soon home video was besieged with such titles as Nightmare City and The House by the Cemetery.

The modern incarnation of the zombie was born in 1968. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a low-budget independent film that proved to be popular among drive-ins and midnight theatre showings throughout the seventies, introduced the concept of a post-apocalyptic plague that brought the dead back to life, while also making his zombies hungry for human flesh. ‘All the monsters we’ve created in fiction, unless expressly identified as the Devil, represent our own evil,’ claimed Romero in a 1977 interview with Film Comment. ‘We create them so we can kill them off, thereby justifying ourselves; it’s a kind of penance, self-exorcism. I like the zombies. The monster has traditionally been sympathetic. I always have the image from Bride of Frankenstein, of the monster sitting with the little blind man. You have to be sympathetic with the creatures because they ain’t doing nothing. They’re like sharks: they can’t help behaving the way they do.’ As many writers have explained, the roots of zombie cinema can be traced back to the voodoo culture of late-nineteenth century Haiti, an island located in the Caribbean. In 1929, American explorer William Seabrook documented his experiences in the region with his text The Magic Island. But it was not until Night of the Living Dead that the most common depiction of the zombie was created. ‘They are a generic feature of horror in the sound era, but are surprisingly absent from silent cinema,’ wrote Romero biographer Tony Williams. ‘Romero’s films not only revitalised their cinematic treatment, but also developed significant links with previous elements within the horror genre. Night of the Living Dead introduced cannibalistic features into ‘living dead’ representation, which later films such as I Eat Your SkinThe Living Dead at the Manchester MorgueZombie Flesh EatersZombie Holocaust, and countless (forgettable) imitators all reinforced. Before Night of the Living Dead, zombies bore little relationship to their more visceral screen descendants.’

With so many zombies returning to life during the graveyard scene, Baker not only recruited himself and his wife to appear as the living dead, but also turned to members of his crew to participate. Thus, during this sequence, many of the zombies were performed by make-up artists, which included Shawn McEnroe, David Miller, Jack Bricker, and future Return of the Living Dead participant Tony Gardner. But this would prove to be the easiest part, as Baker and his team were given a substantial amount of time to design their own characters, but when it came to designing the make-up for the dancers, this was when problems began to arise. ‘They didn’t know how many dancers there were going to be, or who they were going to be; black people, white people, male or female. These people were going to have to dance in their make-ups for two nights, ten hours a night,’ detailed Baker. ‘So the make-ups had to be designed so that they’d fit just about anybody, and they had to be relatively simple so that they’d stay on; for instance, we had to keep them away from areas like the mouth, where it’s difficult to keep up the edges. So we stuck to some very simple brow and cheekbone appliances, made in various sizes and shapes to fit different people, and we made a whole bunch of teeth in a size that would fit just about anybody. When we got the dancers, we did a quick costume fitting of the teeth, using a soft material that we’d insert directly into the performer’s mouth that would set in the proper shape. For some of the dancers, there just weren’t any appliances that would fit them, and they had straight paint jobs done on them. This was early in rehearsals, and it wasn’t determined yet just what positions the dancers would be in; as it turned out, the best appliance work was positioned all the way to the back, so they were hidden from camera.’

Michael Jackson and Michael Peters

While Jackson was already a celebrated dancer, the task of choreographing an entire horde of zombies fell to Michael Peters, a veteran of the Beat It video shoot. Having worked with such legends as Debbie Reynolds and Donna Summer since he launched his career in the mid-sixties, the dance veteran would become the go-to choreographer during the era of MTV, plying his trade on videos for the likes of Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, and Billy Joel. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Peters was considered a genius as a young child, but his resentment towards school resulted in poor grades. Having developed a passion for musicals, he enrolled at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Centre in Queens, New York, using this as an escape from his poor neighbourhood. One such musical that would change his life was West Side Story. ‘When you dance by the numbers, you extract all emotions and sterilise the movement,’ he insisted. ‘You remove the dance from its inspiration, which is the music. What I love is the capability of a body to be free, in the sense of street and social dancing, and, at the same time, do something that is technically hard and tremendously disciplined.’ Peters would enjoy major success in 1979 when he worked on a Broadway reimagining of A Christmas Carol entitled Comin’ Uptown. In 1982, shortly before his introduction to Michael Jackson, Peters received the coveted Tony Award for the hit musical Dreamgirls. But it was Beat It, the second music video produced for the Thriller album, that would mark his arrival on MTV, and cement his friendship with Jackson. ‘He has an innate gift,’ Peters told the Chicago Tribune. ‘You put him with dancers who have studied for years, and whom do you look at? Him. He’s got all this energy, and he knows how to channel it once he starts performing.’

The critical piece of the Thriller video would be the show-stopping dance in which Jackson and the living dead perform a choreographed routine in front of a terrified Ola Ray. And so the casting of the dancers was as important as the casting of the girlfriend. ‘We have eighteen professional dancers, we have four pop lock dancers,’ said Peters. ‘I was looking for people that would really get off on what we were doing. When they walked into the studio the first day, I said, ‘Look, this is not a glamour gig. I mean, it’s going to be uncomfortable make-up, dentures in your mouth, and twelve hours of being really weird-looking.’ They said, ‘We love it!’’ For Michele Simmons, who would later work as a chiropractor in Burbank, specialising in injuries caused by dancing, Thriller proved to be a memorable experience. ‘We rehearsed it in Debbie Reynolds’ dance studio. Michael Peters called me up and said, ‘I’m  getting ready to do Thriller with Michael, and I want you and Lorraine [Fields] to flank him, to be on either side of him,’ because Michael Jackson knew us,’ she recalled. ‘They took moulds of our teeth for the dentures that they put in our mouths. When they made the extra dentures, you put those in your mouth, and now you can’t close your mouth. And when you can’t close your mouth, the saliva falls out. And they just said, ‘This is great! Let’s just put some food colour and dye in there, and that’ll make it really nasty-looking!’ That was part of the deal.’ But with so many dancers requiring extensive make-up and suitable attire, the crew struggled to keep up with the demands and so were forced to improvise. ‘They told us we had to have a lot of dead people,’ said Kelly Kimball, who worked alongside Deborah Nadoolman Landis to create the rotten clothing. ‘So what we did is that we went down to the Salvation Army and bought a load of old suits and things, sort of as is. They had holes in them, and we took them home and wrecked them. We dunked them in water, and we rubbed them on the ground, and we slashed them up with razorblades. And we laid them out to dry, and some bugs crawled in them. And I don’t know, maybe some bugs are still in them.’

Despite her character being terrified by the sight of the undead, for Ola Ray, the experience of working with the dancers on this sequence was nothing short of exhilarating. ‘I had a front-row seat,’ she told Closer Weekly. ‘They danced in front of me over and over, doing that Thriller dance all night long, and I got to watch perfection. Michael just kept saying, ‘Again and again and again!’ And every time he said it, they just got back into place and did their thing. I had no idea that it was going to be that kind of a cult-type. He would never talk to me like that, he wouldn’t boast, he was very humble.’ But the long hours and demands of the short would occasionally prove too much for the novice actress. ‘It took a lot of concentration from playing a young woman in the fifties at the beginning, to Michael’s date in the eighties,’ she admitted. ‘Plus, there were the hours. Since most of the scenes were supposed to be at night, we’d usually begin taping at four in the morning, and keep going until five the next morning. Show business hours are always the most gruelling.’ Although she found the experience to be a mixed blessing, Ray formed a close bond with Jackson during the shoot, and her professionalism left a lasting impression on her director. ‘She had such a great smile,’ remembered Landis. ‘I didn’t know she was a Playmate. I said, ‘Michael, she’s a Playmate, but so what? She’s not a Playmate in this.’ He went, ‘Okay, whatever you want.’ I have to tell you, I got along great with Michael.’’ But there would be one element of the film that would be more important than the chemistry between the two leads, and that was the aesthetics. For Thriller to work, it had to look and feel a certain way, and so Jackson would require the perfect visage.

Deborah Nadoolman Landis had already created the looks for The Blues Brothers and Indiana Jones when her husband pitched the Thriller project to her. ‘I felt red would really pop in front of the ghouls,’ she stated. ‘The socks and shoes were his own. He took that directly from Fred Astaire, who always wore soft leather loafers to dance in, and socks. And Michael was elegant. I worked with David Bowie, who was also that same body frame; again, very slim. Fred Astaire was a thirty-six regular; Michael was a thirty-six regular. David, and Michael, and Fred Astaire; you could literally put them in anything, and they would carry themselves with a distinction, and with a confidence, and with sexuality.’ The look that Landis had bestowed upon Jackson – a red jacket and trousers, the colour of blood – would be significant in the design of the video. ‘When they first left the theatre, and he’s flirting with her, and dancing around her, and she’s dancing forward by that chain-link fence, I love that part of the video,’ she beamed. ‘He’s so appealing and attractive. The silhouette on top, especially in the mask, really works in the dance. He’s the top of the arrowhead for that triangle pushing forward on that street, in the back alley by the cemetery, with all the ghouls. The fact that he has that V, the fact that his body is a V, out to the edges of his shoulders; all of that is graphic, it’s active, there’s a tension there. Everything combined; the look, the style, the shape, the silhouette, the music, and the camerawork.’ With work on the Thriller shoot having finally come to an end, and Jackson’s dream of becoming a monster fulfilled, it was now time to unveil it to the world. And with the budget for the fourteen-minute video having eclipsed $1m, expectations were understandably high. It was now make or break for Michael Jackson.

VII. No Mere Mortal Can Resist

Locked away in a cramped editing room on the lot of Universal Studios, John Landis, George Folsey, Jr., and editor Malcolm Campbell scurried away cutting together footage from the Thriller shoot in order to meet the post-production deadline. If the development of the film had suffered a rushed schedule, then the final stage would be even more hectic. With Michael Jackson often joining them for the sessions, the video gradually came to life through the magic of editing. ‘We’d look at cut footage and talk about things, and it was always fun,’ recalled Folsey. ‘He was very appreciative of good ideas.’ The film had been a passion project for both Jackson and Landis, and now they enjoyed watching it blossom as scenes were chosen and then discarded, one take jettisoned in favour of another. And with the assistance of sound editor Mike Wilhoit, the audio was dubbed in order to incorporate dialogue, incidental sounds, and the cries of the living dead into the mix. ‘They didn’t have sound when they shot it, just the song and some dialogue,’ explained Wilhoit. ‘We had some of the dancers come into the recording studio and record the sound of their feet. The biggest thing was the sound of the monsters and the zombies, to get them to sound all scary and weird. Voices were changed around, reversed, played slower.’ Once the music video had been cut together, they needed to test it in front of an audience, and so Jackson decided to showcase it to his family. ‘Before the official première in December 1983, he had gathered the family in the thirty-two-seat theatre he’d built downstairs at Hayvenhurst, with wood-panelled walls and gold-framed black-and-white photos of Shirley Temple, the Little Rascals, and Charlie Chaplin,’ said Jermaine Jackson. ‘We took our places in the red velvet seats, and Michael walked on to the small raised platform in front of the screen. He was nervous but excited, and explained that his new video was ‘shot like a film,’ and he wanted our honest opinions at the end. I don’t think there was one member of the family who wasn’t blown away. It was musical, choreographic, cinematic, make-up genius.’

But even with the music video having received unanimous approval, Landis was still struggling to cut together the forty-five minute documentary that would encompass the home video release. This was a contractual obligation, as it had been part of the dead that they had signed with Vestron, but it proved more challenging than he had anticipated. ‘We put all the footage together and we saw it was, like, only twenty-six minutes long,’ admitted Landis. ‘Oh shit. I said, ‘Do you have any other footage you own? What do you own?’ I literally went into the closet at Mike’s house. I said, ‘Mrs  Jackson, where do you keep all your home movies?’ ‘I don’t know.’ And I found a box of home movies; and now everyone’s seen it, that amazing 8mm footage of Mike dancing at five-years-old. I found that in a closet so I said, ‘Okay, we own this too.’ We called it the Making of Filler.’ And yet despite all the hard work and dedication that had gone into its release, as the official première approached, Jackson began to get cold feet and requested the film negatives be destroyed. A devout Jehovah’s Witness, Jackson was feeling pressure from their New York headquarters, lambasting his decision to mock death with a promotional video incorporating many elements of the horror genre. As documented in his memoir, his mother, Katherine, took her children ‘to the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ and his career had remained under the close scrutiny of their watchful eye. Fearful that the footage may never see the light of day, Landis decided to take action by adding a disclaimer at the beginning of the video that stated the clip did not reflect his religious beliefs. ‘When we made that he was still living at home, and Katherine – his mother’s father, his grandfather – was a deacon or something in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the church was unhappy with the film,’ said Landis. ‘They thought it was Satanic, and they really gave him a hard time, and that disclaimer, well, I actually wrote that disclaimer. That was a sop at the church to basically say, ‘Fuck off!’ I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is ridiculous!’ And, of course, it caused controversy when people read it. He had this unerring gift for promotion and publicity.’

Close to Wilshire Boulevard that cuts deep through Los Angeles is the five-hundred seat Crest Theatre, and it was here, on 14 November, 1983, that both Landis and Jackson decided to unleash Thriller upon the world. They had clear motives for this: in order for a film to qualify for an Academy Award, it must have played for no less than a week at a theatre in this city, and so it was agreed that the première would be a star-studded event. ‘We had a première, which was a riot, because Michael wanted a première,’ claimed Landis. ‘I’ve been to the Oscars and I’ve been to the Baftas, I’ve been to the Emmys, I’ve been to the Golden Globes, and I’ve never been anywhere like this première. It was incredible. There was everyone from Diana Ross, and Warren Beatty, to Prince. It was nuts. Amazing. Got a standing ovation, and all that stuff, and they’re shouting, ‘Encore, encore.’ And I said, ‘Encore? There is no fucking encore!’ Then Eddie Murphy got up and shouted, ‘Show the goddamn thing again!’ So they sat and they watched Thriller again. Why not? It was just amazing. Walter Yetnikop said, ‘Okay, we own this music.’ And I understand why he did it for his company; they had technically fulfilled their obligation to me with the theatrical release. So it went on Showtime, and two weeks later it went on MTV; and they showed Thriller, and the Making of Thriller, like, twenty-four fucking hours a day. Yetnikop then took Thriller and gave it to every TV station in the world. And so that was so extraordinary that it made MTV, and it made the video business, become a real business.’

Thriller made its debut on MTV on Friday, 2 December, 1983. Despite the networks resistance at bringing Jackson onto their roster, the video became an instant success. ‘What a piece of work. Thriller, a long time coming,’ declared presenter Mark Goodman. ‘The only place on TV you can see Thriller is here, on MTV.’ But unlike Billie Jean, with Thriller, MTV had a personal stake in its success, and so were determined to give it as much exposure as possible. ‘The only video we ever paid for was Thriller,’ admitted co-creator Robert Pittman. ‘CBS decided they were going to make only two videos per album. We wanted another Michael Jackson video after Billie Jean and Beat It, but we didn’t want to set a precedent of paying to produce videos. So we paid to producer Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but the money went to pay for Thriller. And it turned out to be the single most successful video in the history of MTV.’ For Les Garland, who was the Senior Executive and Vice President of Programming, he believed MTV would not have succeeded without Michael Jackson. ‘MTV was running a 1.2 rating for a twenty-four hour period,’ he told Billboard in 2009 ‘We saw spikes into the 10s when we put Thriller on. It was a very smart strategic move, putting MTV over the top in terms of popularity among the target twelve-to-thirty-two demographic. We saw the top of the mountain with Thriller.’ Pittman had even decided that the best way to generate publicity and repeat viewings was to build up anticipation between each broadcast. ‘We were playing it every hour,’ he said. ‘And announcing when it would air: ‘Thriller is one hour away,’ fifty minutes away, ‘thirty minutes away.’ Ironically, we probably would not have gone that far, nor would we have gotten that involved, if it had not been for Rick James’ criticism that we didn’t play black artists. Thriller brought people to MTV for the first time, and it made them stay, and watch it again and again. Now, everybody was into MTV.’

Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller

But with success and acclaim comes criticism, and with the growing concern surrounding the corruptive influence that popular culture has on the youth of America, there were those who remained outspoken against the graphic nature of the Thriller video. Following her disgust at a reference to female masturbation in a Prince song her daughter was listening to, Tipper Gore, a former wannabe pop star and wife of Tennessee Senator Al Gore, cofounded the Parents Music Resource Centre with one clear goal in mind: to combat the inherent sexuality and violence that was on music television, album covers, and in magazines. ‘In the debate over explicit materials, some people tend to treat children simply as miniature adults, with mature reasoning powers and critical thinking skills,’ she wrote in her 1987 analysis Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. ‘One set of parents told me that their four-year-old had nightmares for a week after watching the movie for Thriller (which shows Michael Jackson turning into a monster, frightening his girlfriend, and joining graveyard ghouls in a great dance routine that old teens love). They didn’t know what the matter was, because their child couldn’t explain what she saw. Teenagers in the family had watched the video with her. They thought it was funny, but she was terrified, and the frightening image lodged in her mind.’ But Thriller’s association with MTV would save it from the censorship that the network often imposed on other videos that they feared viewers would find offensive. ‘David Bowie’s bare-bottomed frolic in China Girl was sent back for heavy editing, and other clips have been dumped altogether,’ reported People in 1983. ‘Among them: Van Halen’s Oh, Pretty Woman, featuring midgets chasing transvestites, and the Rolling Stones’ Neighbours, with its suggestion of mutilation and murder. ‘Censorship is not a word we like to use around here,’ admits Garland, one of the three men on the station’s review committee. ‘We call it good judgement.’’

Following its popularity on MTV, Thriller once again became innovative when it pushed home video into a new realm, eclipsing the previous success of Jane Fonda’s Workout, and also introducing the concept of a ‘making of’ featurette. ‘A guy named Walter Furst, he ran this company called Vestron Video, he called me and said, ‘I want to put it out on VHS,’’ recalled Landis. ‘I said, ‘We can’t sell it for $90, it’s on TV for free every five seconds.’ He said, ‘No, no, no; we’ll price it for sell-through.’ The first time I ever heard that expression. ‘We’ll sell it for $24.95.’ I thought, ‘Who’s gonna but it for $24.95?’ But they shipped a million of them just in the United States. And what Thriller did, it created the sell-through video. It changed everything.’ Thriller was released through Vestron Video on 14 December, 1983 for a rental price of $29.95, and in its initial order alone shifted a hundred-thousand copies. The same amount was sold in the United Kingdom in just three days, an achievement which made the front page of The Sun in April 1984. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Vestron’s decision to release Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller on both formats caused a brief revival of Betamax, which had begun to lose popularity with the video-buying public. ‘Beta Hi-Fi offers stereo-quality sound, and Jackson’s tape was the perfect test for owners of the new machine,’ wrote critic Anthony Violanti. ‘The Thriller video was judged one of the five most important video tapes in history, according to Video Magazine.’

Despite the impressive sales, however, not every publication reacted favourably to the end product. ‘Now, what amounts to an hour-long documentary about the star has arrived on the market in time for Christmas’, said the New York Times. ‘This cassette leads off with a fourteen-minute video extension of the song Thriller, directed by the feature filmmaker John Landis. The short offers Mr. Jackson and a girlfriend (the lovely Ola Ray) beset by a plethora of ghouls and monsters, with Mr. Jackson becoming a monster himself. The effect is not very scary, and far less stylish and succinct than Mr. Giraldi’s shorts. The rest of this cassette consists of a stilted documentary about the making of Mr. Landis’ video, plus fragmentary conversations with Mr. Jackson, excerpts from the Giraldi videos, and Mr. Jackson’s genuinely thrilling solo performance from the recent Motown twenty-fifth anniversary television special. As fodder for the insatiable appetites of Mr. Jackson’s fans, this video cassette will undoubtedly fill a demonstrable need. As a convincing statement in itself, it leaves something to be desired.’ Following the backlash from the Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding the video, Jackson attempted to block production and sales of the home video. ‘I’ll never do a video like that again,’ he promised. ‘In fact, I have blocked further distribution of the film over which I have control, including its releases in some other countries. I would never do anything like that again, because a lot of people were offended by it. I didn’t want them to feel that way. I realise now it was not a good idea. 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.’

In just fourteen minutes everything changed. Thriller singlehandedly cemented the legacy of MTV, and turned home video into the way of the future, all the while reigniting the success of Jackson’s album. ‘Music videos in the early eighties started as a little cottage industry in Britain,’ said Brian Grant, whose work in the medium included Kim Wilde’s Kids in America and Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf. ‘As soon as the Americans got involved, things became monetised, turning music videos into a proper industry, which operated alongside MTV. The big turning point was Thriller.’ According to an article published by Billboard in 1984, the home video industry had intended on somehow joining forces with record companies from day one. ‘Since the late seventies and early eighties, many believed that music videos was a natural evolution of the record business, and directed their efforts and energy to create music programming for the home video marketplace,’ claimed Vestron’s Ian Ralfini. ‘Then came V-day, 14 December, 1983, when Vestron released Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This was three years after home video first made its presence felt. Was this now the beginning of the long-heralded home video music business? Obviously, manufacturers and retailers thought so. Deals were being made premised on the sales of Thriller, many of which were doomed to show a negative balance on the books. Music video had exploded and almost blew itself away. Manufacturers quickly tried to renegotiate deals, and in some cases backed out of deals completely. Music video went back in the closet for a while. However, the Michael Jackson phenomenon did prove that there was a substantial audience out there. To date, Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller has sold more than eighty-thousand copies.’

The success of Thriller shocked no one more than Michael Jackson. ‘I’m still stunned by this response,’ he admitted in 1988. ‘By the time we finally closed down the Thriller campaign a year later, the album was at the thirty-two million mark. Today, sales are at forty-million. A dream come true. The success of Thriller really hit me in 1984, when the album received a gratifying number of nominations for the American Music Awards, and the Grammy Awards. I remember feeling an overwhelming rush of jubilation. I was whooping with joy, and dancing around the house, screaming. When the album was certified as the best-selling album of all time, I couldn’t believe it.’ In 2009, the same year that Thriller became the first music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, two of Jackson’s colleagues on Thriller filed lawsuits against him over unpaid royalties. In January, John Landis was the first to take action, accusing Jackson of ‘fraudulent, malicious, and oppressive conduct.’ The case was finally settled in August 2012, more than three years after Jackson’s death, with an official press release documenting that, ‘The Estate of Michael Jackson, John Landis, and George Folsey, Jr. have reached an amicable settlement of the actions that were pending in the Los Angeles Court relating to the legendary short motion picture Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and the documentary Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The settlement is confidential.’ Four months after Landis filed his lawsuit with Folsey, a second was filed from Ola Ray, who claimed she had not received royalties for the music video since its release in December 1983. ‘Everyone thinks I made millions,’ she revealed. In January 2014, Ray reached a settlement and received $75,000, $25,000 of which was taken by her attorney. But in September 2017, Ray once again took legal action against the Michael Jackson Estate following a 3-D re-release of the music video. ‘I’m outraged, upset, and in shock,’ she declared. ‘They haven’t tried to contact me, or negotiate anything. How do they think they can just do this without paying me?’

In the four decades since Michael Jackson, John Landis, and Ola Ray stood outside the Palace Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles, the legacy of Thriller has resulted in the growth of both the music video and home video market, Jackson’s ascension to the King of Pop, lawsuits, protests from religious leaders, and the most successful album of all time. And all this began because, for just one moment, he wanted to be a monster. The sale of his Thriller jacket in 2011 for a record-breaking $1.9m proved just how iconic the video has become. ‘I always told Michael, ‘You only get out of life, what you put into it.’ I think those words stayed with him,’ recalled his mother, Katherine Jackson, in her own memoir Never Can Say Goodbye. ‘Michael always knew what he wanted to do, and how far he could go. He believed in hard work, a positive attitude, and perseverance. No matter what he set out to do in his career, he wouldn’t settle to just be good…it had to be his best. He worked tenaciously, for as long as it took, until he was satisfied with the outcome. His efforts did not stop there, either. Above and beyond his tenacity was his vision.’ Even though he had filed a lawsuit against Jackson, whom he had collaborated with once again a decade later on the music video Black or White, John Landis still looks back on the time they spent together on the cold streets of Los Angeles with affection. ‘The Making of film, directed by Jerry Kramer, documented just what a brilliant performer Michael was,’ he told the Guardian in 2017, during the promotion of the 3-D re-release. Thirty-four years had passed by that point, but Landis could almost remember every moment they spent making the short film. And those moments he could not remember were caught forever on video. ‘Watching Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller now, after three decades, one thing is clear: Michael looks so happy!’

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