The Story Behind Thriller

The King Of Pop is dead.

We thought we’d pay tribute by celebrating the first music video to truly transcend MTV, which became an eternal part of pop culture in the process.

It’s a music video, it’s a movie, it’s a cultural event. It’s Thriller . It’s brilliant. Here’s how Michael made it.

Origins (1983)

Michael Jackson : We tried to bring back motion pictures shorts. I wanted Thriller to be a stimulant for people to make better videos and short films.

John Landis: His whole thing was we gotta be good, it’s gotta be good, it’s gotta be great…

Jackson: The best.

Landis: The best.

Next: Influences



Jackson: I saw American Werewolf In London and I really, really liked it, because it was a different type of horror movie, it was comedy and horror, that’s the way I saw it.

So I asked, who’s the director who did it? And they said 'John Landis, John Landis.' I said, 'great, that’s who we’ve got to get, get in touch with him.'

Landis: I gradually became aware that he knew me from American Werewolf, but he knew nothing else.

It was real awkward. We asked, ‘have you seen Trading Places?’

Jackson (smiling): No.

Landis: Animal House?

Jackson : No.

Landis: Blues Brothers?

Michael: No.

Landis: It was a real depressing afternoon at Michael Jackson’s house.

Next: Creating The Monsters


Creating The Monsters

Jackson: When I first walked into Rick (Baker’s) studio, it was like a museum of horror, all these faces, I was so amazed by it.

There was one that was just a head that was split open, all these organs were pushing out, all his brains. It was disgusting, but it was brilliant. I think that he’s an incredible artist.

Rick Baker:
I actually started make-up when I was 10. I made up all my friends in the neighbourhood and usually they were pretty ghastly make ups, third degree burns, gashes and wounds… I wasn’t allowed in a lot of houses when I was a kid (laughs).

The biggest challenge for this film was getting the amount of work we needed to have done, done in the time that we had.

At one point there’s around thirty different zombies that we created. We had twenty make-up artists all putting appliances on zombies. It’s the largest make-up crew I’ve ever had.

Next: Transformation



Next: The Dance


The Dance

Jackson: I did Beat It with Michael Peters and I choreographed portions of that as well.

So I told John Landis, I want Michael Peters to work on this thing. And so we got together and we did certain steps and we finally ended up agreeing on the piece.

Michael Peters: We have eighteen professional dancers, we have four pop lock dancers, I was looking for people who would really get off on what we were doing.

When they walked into the studio on the first day I said look, this is not a glamour gig, it’s going to be uncomfortable make-up and dentures in your mouth and twelve hours of being really weird looking. They said 'I love it.'

Michael is quite amazing to me.

He’s working with people that have studied this for a great portion of their lives and he’ll walk into a studio and you purely give him the rhythm of a step, and he just does it.

It’s really wonderful to watch, because it’s an innate gift that he has. He’s a dancer in his soul.

Next: The Legacy


The Legacy

Quincy Jones said on the set of Thriller: “This is going to be the Citizen Kane of videos.

"I think it’s going to be the most revolutionary thing in the history of videos. It’s a new art form, but I think this is leading the way.”

He was right. Thriller is still listed in the Guinness Book Of Records as the Most Successful Music Video and MTV to this day rates it as the Greatest Music Video ever made.

But more than that, Thriller is a part of pop culture like no music video before or after it.

There isn’t a filmed medium invented that hasn’t paid homage to it.

Whether it's in horror movie spoofs like Return Of The Living Dead II , stop-motion TV shows like Robot Chicken , awful reality TV shows like Big Brother (who staged the dance as a task in Series 9) or fan videos on YouTube, Thriller will be watched, discussed and copied forever.

When people saw the Sex Pistols, it made them want to play. When people see Thriller , it makes them want to dance. It’s a fine legacy.

Next: The Homages


The Homages

Thriller is still the most successful music video of all time. It’s been homaged a million times as a result. Here are a few of our favourites.

Filipino Prisoners Do The Dance

Why We Love It:

It’s incredible. There’s something eerie about seeing hundreds of prisoners stumbling around like the undead, and as for the dancing...

Best Bit:

When the music kicks in and they go into their perfectly timed routine.

It actually makes our jaws slacken with joy every time we see it. It's almost as good as the original for sheer wonder. Trust us, it'll give you goosebumps.

Oh, yeah, and keep an eye out for the prisoner playing Michael's girlfriend. We bet he was popular afterwards...

Gorillaz – Clint Eastwood

Why We Love It:

Gorillaz announced their existence to the world with a pitch perfect homage to the greatest music video of all time.

This is no spoof, this is a respectful tribute - complete with Thriller font, setting and dance routines - and it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Best Bit:

When the monkeys (gorillas?) shift their shoulders and clap their hands, in sync. Genius.

Indian Thriller

Why We Love It:

Because it’s hilarious. If we ever get dumped by girls, we watch this video and the world doesn’t seem so bad.

Best Bit:

It’s all amazing, but the moment at around the 0.59 mark, when the weird guitar kicks in, gets us every time.

Oh, and after all that, maybe you'll want to watch the original. Here it is, in full.

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Sam Ashurst is a London-based film maker, journalist, and podcast host. He's the director of Frankenstein's Creature, A Little More Flesh + A Little More Flesh 2, and co-hosts the Arrow Podcast. His words have appeared on HuffPost, MSN, The Independent, Yahoo, Cosmopolitan, and many more, as well as of course for us here at GamesRadar+.