On December 2, 1983, Michael Jackson’s 14-minute video, “Thriller,” was released and became what the National Film Registry has called “most famous music video of all time.” The film was directed by John Landis (Animal House, Blues Brothers, Beverly Hills Cop among his credits) and co-starred Jackson and 1980 Playboy centerfold Ola Ray. It also featured a spoken-word performance by horror film veteran Vincent Price.
In a 1999 interview with MTV, Jackson talked about the making of the video:
“My idea was to make this short film with conversation in the beginning—I like having a beginning and a middle and an ending, which would follow a story. I’m very much involved in complete making and creating of the piece. It has to be, you know, my soul. Usually it’s an interpretation of the music.
“It was a delicate thing to work on because I remember my original approach was, ‘How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?’ So I said, ‘We have to do just the right kind of movement so it doesn’t become something that you laugh at.’ But it just has to take it to another level. So I got in a room with [choreographer] Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies move by making faces in the mirror. I used to come to rehearsal sometimes with monster makeup on, and I loved doing that. So he and I collaborated and we both choreographed the piece and I thought it should start like that kind of thing and go into this jazzy kind of step, you know. Kind of gruesome things like that.”
The song “Thriller” was penned by Rod Temperton, who also wrote or co-wrote hits for Heatwave (“Boogie Nights,” “Always and Forever,” “The Groove Line”), Michael McDonald (“Sweet Freedom,” “Ya Mo B There,”) and others for Michael Jackson (“Rock With You,” “Off the Wall”). The original title of the song was “Starlight,” and the hook went: “Starlight! Starlight sun…,” but after the title was changed to “Thriller” the hook was rewritten to “Thriller! In the night…”
Temperton told The Daily Telegraph:
“Originally, when I did my ‘Thriller’ demo, I called it ‘Starlight.’ Quincy [Jones] said to me, ‘You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.’ I said, ‘Oh great,’ so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title ‘Midnight Man.’ 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 the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as ‘Thriller.’”
While Temperton was writing “Thriller” he said that he’d always envisioned a talking section at the end on the song, but did not really know what to do with it. Then he decided it would be cool to have a famous voice in the horror genre do the vocal. So Quincy Jones’ wife, Peggy Lipton, knew Vincent Price, suggested him for the part, and Price signed on.
Here is the full 14-minute video—released 28 years ago today—that changed the way we experience music.