I can still remember the first time I saw Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. It was in the early 1980s, and I was about eight years old at the time. I was over a friend’s house, and they had MTV going on the TV. The “Thriller” video came on while I was there, and I have to admit it really scared me at the time. Of course, now that it’s been over twenty five years since I first saw it, the video doesn’t frighten me anymore. I have also come to realize just how much of a milestone the “Thriller” video was for both MTV and the music video industry.
When MTV was playing a marathon of Michael Jackson videos in his memory, I saw both versions of the “Thriller” video (the full-length and a shorter edit). Being able to really see the video so many years later, I could really take it in. By today’s standards, the effects seem really cheesy. However, for the early 1980s, the effects looked rather impressive, especially for the then-fledgling music video industry.
The full-length video opens with what the audience believes to be Michael Jackson and his girlfriend out on a date; judging by the outfits, they look like they should be in the 1950s or the early 1960s. After Michael turns into a werewolf, we discover what we’ve been watching is actually a movie. In reality, Michael Jackson and his date, who looks an awful lot like the girlfriend in the movie, have an argument in the movie theater because his date isn’t enjoying the movie. She leaves, and he follows. Michael busts out into song, and soon, zombies start rising out of the graveyard. Michael and his date are cornered by the zombies, and Michael himself turns into a zombie. Then, Michael and the zombies launch into the famous zombie dance. Michael’s date runs into an abandoned house, and just when all seems lost, Michael’s date wakes up, and she is in a nice-looking house. But at the end of the video, Michael turns his head back to the camera, and he has yellow eyes. The video ends up leaving the viewer with the question: was it really just a dream or not?
“Thriller” was a revolutionary video for its time, because most videos released in the early 1980s were simply a kind of “performance clip”. There were very few music videos that had much of a storyline to them. Of course, Michael didn’t simply release a music video with a storyline. He made sure the video was a kind of “mini movie”; in the full-length version, there is an ending credits roll like you would see at the end of a movie. In the wake of the “Thriller” video, you started to see music video directors being more willing to use the music video as a medium to tell a story, and incorporating storylines into music videos. “Thriller” proved that the music video could be a storytelling medium, in addition to selling a song and an artist. After the release of “Thriller,” music videos would never be the same again.