News Column

Michael Jackson's video spawned a love for zombies, dance

December 1, 2013


Dec. 01--Did you know that Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video was the first-ever video inducted into the National Film Registry? That the video's director, John Landis, had also directed the movie "An American Werewolf in London?"

Or that, because of his Jehovah's Witness faith, Jackson nearly faced being thrown out of the church because of the video's depiction of supernatural creatures, such as werewolves and zombies? To prevent this, he placed a disclaimer at the start of the video, denouncing any ties to "the occult."

Or, how about that, in 1984, it was nominated for Video of the Year at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards -- but lost to The Cars' "You Might Think?" Seems hard to believe now, doesn't it? (MTV eventually ate a little crow by awarding "Thriller" as the Greatest Music Video of All Time.)

What may also be difficult to swallow for some -- the fact that the video was released a full three decades ago.

That's right, folks. On Monday, the video that transformed the genre forever turns 30 years old.

Premiered worldwide on Dec. 2, 1983, the 13-minute long "mini movie" was the first-ever of its kind, introducing the populace to a new era of epic music videos.

Ringing in as the most expensive music video ever made at the time (a title still held by Jackson for his duet video with sister Janet for "Scream") it also ushered in a boom in the behind-the-scenes and home-video markets with the release of "The Making of Thriller." The making-of portion was actually funded as a joint venture by MTV and Showtime, in return for the rights to air it.

But these facts alone can't account for the video's iconic status and undeniable staying power. So, 30 years after Jackson & Co. first sashayed across the screen in werewolf garb, zombie make-up and tattered clothes, just what is it that keeps it, to this day, in the pop culture spotlight?

The Dominion Post asked some folks to tell us.

Here's what they had to say about it.

Gemma Fountain, the organizer of Thrill Morgantown, a local group that endeavors each year to help break the world record for number of people dancing the "Thriller" dance simultaneously, recalls watching the world premiere from all the way across the pond.

I remember seeing 'Thriller' for the first time," she said. "I was a little girl in England, and my older cousin was babysitting me and her friends were there and I remember being glued to the TV and being like, 'What is this? What is this video?' I was mesmerized by it."

And although she was only about 6 years old at the time, Fountain said the vision she saw onscreen has stayed with her ever since.

"I was really young and I remember just being mesmerized," she said again. "Just seeing it and being like, 'Oh, my goodness' because it was a video that was like a movie at the same time, and it had a story behind it. And we all loved Michael Jackson anyway, but that was the video that just really catapulted him to just stardom."

She said that while the video is great on so many levels, she thinks it's the iconic dance that keeps people coming back for more, even decades later.

"After 30 years, I think it's still popular because everyone wants to know that dance. It's such a cool dance, so stuck in everyone's brains, and we all wanted to know that dance. That's why I got involved in Thrill Morgantown, because I always wanted to know that dance. Everybody wants to know that dance, because it's just awesome."

Gemma's husband, Eric Fountain, said he was about 9 when he first saw the video.

"I was at my sister's apartment and she was watching it because she was a big Michael Jackson fan, and she scared me [with it]," he said. "Honestly, the music, when I was little, being an '80s kid, an early-'90s kid, the music was very big in my house. Michael Jackson was very big in my house and I had always liked the music."

But the "Thriller" video -- and it's making-of companion piece -- took it to another level, he said.

"Honestly, I think [the success of the video is] because his music started the trend of the videos you see today, lots of musicians when they make a video, they try to make it more like a movie," he said. "Michael Jackson was really one of the ones who started that. If you really watch the old 'Thriller,' it had like werewolves, it was really in depth, and really changed the videos today."

When asked why she felt "Thriller" was still as cool today as it was 30 years ago, Jennifer Ellifritz summed it up this way.

"Zombie. Red leather. Vincent Price."

If pressed for more, she said, "It was one of the first instances of a (major) special effects team/movie director/VP voice-over. Innovative and daring even for the '80s. Like being treated to a major motion picture on your MTV."

Ann Adams also had something to say about Jackson's wardrobe.

"A new generation of dance moves was spawned from the video," she said. "Plus, Michael Jackson in a letterman jacket was beyond adorable."

Local musician Haley Slagle said she remembers skipping her usual bedtime to see what everybody was talking about.

"I stayed up until midnight to watch the premiere on MTV," she recalled. "It scared the crap out of me. And I loved it."

"I used to lip sync Vincent Price's narration," Jill Hess said.

That bit also scared Slagle, Slagle admitted.

Local karaoke host and DJ Allen Davis considers the song and the video a milestone in his budding love of music.

"I remember my cousin Crystal had gotten the 'Thriller' album, I think it was in 1983 when it came out, and she didn't like it too much," he said. "I borrowed it and wore it out to the point where I had to buy her a new one."

As for the video, that was major deal, too, he said.

"I remember when MTV was premiering the video, they made a really big deal about it, in fact it was the first-ever world premiere video on MTV," he said. "... It blew my socks off -- the make-up, the choreography, the way they edited the song to fit perfectly with the video, even the little inside jokes in the video. It was fantastic. It blew me away as an '80s child. I'd never seen anything like that, and honestly, I haven't seen anything like that since."

Davis also credits the video with bringing the zombie movement more to the forefront, along with Bruce Campbell movies.

"Between the make-up and the directing and the exposure that it got worldwide, I think it is one of the defining moments in the horror genre," he said.

Mary McClung, director of the Costume Shop and associate professor of costume design at WVU -- said she was a huge fan back in the day. Still is, actually -- so much so that she still shows "The Making Of Thriller" to her design students.

"I was high school kid [when I first saw it] ... it was fun horror, and I think it was actually the beginning of the zombie movement kind of in a way," she recalled. "So it's kind of an interesting precursor to that. It was kind of a flashback to the old horror movies. John Landis directed it, so it was lots of fun."

It didn't hurt that she had a bit of a crush on Jackson at the time either, she added.

"The dancing was wonderful, and it combined the dancing with the storytelling and it was kind of this whole progression and the whole thing was really wonderful. I just loved it."

The theatrical elements of the video also called out to her interests.

"It was a play within a play almost, because it was this young couple going to the theater to see this scary movie, walking home, and then the play sort of started coming alive, in a way, so it had a little depth to it as well.

"Plus, the monster transformation was wonderful. It was Rick Baker, and it was wonderful ... 'The Making of Thriller,' which highlighted Rick Baker's work .. the behind-the-scenes got me sort of interested in tech theater and the entertainment industry, so yeah, I think it had a heck of an influence on me."

Which is why, she said, she shows it to this next generation of make-up, design and special effects artists.

But, deep down, the video is more than simply a lesson tool. It's part of her childhood, she said.

"I was a crazy Michael Jackson fan," she said. "I learned the steps, learned the dance, and I completed in a contest at the ice skating rink here in Morgantown -- won second place -- but, yeah, I was a big fan, I have to say. A real Michael Jackson geek."


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