by Jason Smythe
November 30, 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, one of the best-selling and most influential albums of all time. To commemorate this, I have decided to write a scene by scene analysis of the Thriller music video as I view it in its entirety for the first time.
|0:16: The words Michael Jackson’s Thriller appears in blood red letters across a black backdrop, and as the words come into view we hear heavy breathing in the background. It is a haunting visual, and suggests this video will be dominated by a sense of dread.|
0:25-0:42: The red letters and heavy breathing give way to the sounds of crickets, and we see a lone car driving along a road. The entire scene is a single-take. As the camera pans from the car through a forest, and then back to the car, the engine sputters to a halt along a bend in the road. We know from every Hollywood movie that this is a bad omen.
|0:48: First Michael Jackson sighting! It turns out Michael is the owner/driver of this omen car, and his letterman jacket is all kinds of retro awesome. His girlfriend is pretty cute as well.|
1:00: The car is out of gas, so they start walking along the clearly haunted road. This will not end well.
1:48: Michael and his girlfriend decide to become official. Seriously, have they never seen a Hollywood movie? This means you or your girlfriends are going to die, MJ!
The cinematography has been fantastic up to this point. A lot of long single-take shots, and considering the amount of movement that Michael and his girlfriend have done so far this is no small feat.
2:02: Michael: “I’m not like other guys.” I hope his unnamed girlfriend (I’m going to start calling her Jane) has some pepper sprayor an early 80s cell-phone.
2:05: Jane: “Of course not, that’s why I love you!” Oh sweet, naïve, and probably about to die in 10 minutes , Jane…
2:08: Michael: “No, I mean I’m different.” If I’m Jane at this point I’m hoping he just means that he can moonwalk, and considering this was 1982 the moonwalk was pulled a lot less often at clubs than it was in say, 1984.
2:10: Full moon appears. In the words of Scooby-Doo: “ruh-roh!”
2:24: Michael’s werewolf face is rather creepy. The yellow eyes with the black slit pupils are a nice touch. Well done, costume crew—well done.
|3:00: Werewolf transformation complete. In the previous 30 seconds we see the camera zoom in to various parts of Michael’s body while they are undergoing werewolf transformation. The highlight for me has to be when the whiskers sprout out of his face—I am convinced the director made this look cheesy on purpose.
3:02: Jane runs into the woods.
3:43: Just as Jane is about to be killed by Werewolf Michael the camera cuts to a theatre full of screaming people with Michael Jackson (eating popcorn while rocking that legendary red leather jacket) and a different girl (let’s call her Jane 2) sitting right in the middle of the shot. If we find out that Michael has been dead this whole time and only Jane 2 can see him I’m going to be pissed.
4:14: The unmistakable beat of Thriller starts playing as Michael and Jane 2 leave the theatre. I think this will end well.
4:34: Just realized that Jane 1 and Jane 2 are played by the same actress. In fairness, Jane 2’s hair is different.
|4:45: Michael starts singing the first few words of Thriller as he walks his date home. The song is all about a boy promising to protect a girl from the dangers of the world.|
5:25: No one does a better zombie than Michael Jackson. At this very moment I become aware of the shortcomings in AMC’s The Walking Dead.
5:32: [Michael singing]: “You close your eyes, and wonder if this is just imagination, girl.” These lyrics are important for two reasons: 1) It sets the scene for Michael to prove to his girl (through song and dance, of course) that he can protect her from all dangers (real or imaginary); 2) It plays to the night imagery that has been dominant throughout this video. Such imagery is necessary because we tend to view night as being more dangerous than day, dark being less preferable than light, and it is clear that the director’s intent is to place us in a vulnerable situation, waiting for Michael to protect us with his awesome song and dance skills.
6:08: [Michael singing]: “Now is the time for you and I to cuddle close together.” This builds on the theme of Michael being a source of protection for his girl, and his dancing reflects this. All of Michael’s dancing has been done close to Jane 2—evidence of his ability to protect her.
6:25: Michael and Jane 2 enter a graveyard. This marks a shift in the video: Before this, Michael was merely talking about how we could protect Jane 2, but now he has to prove it through action.
6:34: No one has a better voice than Vincent Price.
6:39: OH SNAP! First real zombie sighting!
|7:33: WHY ARE ZOMBIES COMING OUT OF THE SEWER? Actually, that is awesome. Seriously, this blows The Walking Dead out of the water.|
7:51: This is the greatest moment in zombie film history! Words cannot describe how much joy I feel right now!
7:55: Michael and Jane 2 are surrounded by zombies. Let’s see what you got, Mike! Since I have seen this man moonwalk before I am going to go out on a limb and bet that Michael protects Jane 2 from these zombies.
8:26: WHAT? Michael is now a zombie? Was he secretly a zombie this whole time? Are we watching some sort of movie within a movie? I take back everything I said in my previous note: This can’t end well.
P.S. This is still better than The Walking Dead, and it explains why Michael could do such a good zombie “impersonation” back at 5:25.
8:30: Let the epic Zombie Michael dance begin!
8:31 –9:20: 1) The cinematography is fantastic during the early part of the Zombie Michael dance scene. We get fluid transitions between numerous long single take shots, and it is shot in a way that makes you feel as if you right alongside Michael. 2) The dancing is not only occurring further away from Jane 2, but it has become more aggressive in movement. Is the thesis of this video that no one, regardless of how trustworthy they seem, can protect you from the dangers of the world? If so, this video has not only become far more cynical, but seems to be going in the opposite direction of the song’s lyrics.
|9:40: Now Michael is human. Did I just spend the past minute and a bit having an acid flashback? How did he transform from human to zombie to human so quickly?|
I think I have this video figured out. In Thriller, Michael sings “And no one’s gonna save you from the beast about strike”, and in the video Michael goes from being the protective boyfriend to a zombie. Again, the song is clearly about how a boy is promising to protect a girl, but by turning into a Zombie Michael shows that a girl can never know for sure if that boy is capable of always protecting her, because maybe he will one day briefly turn into a zombie and threaten her as well.
10:37: Jane 2 is about to enter an abandoned, and obviously haunted house. This can’t end well.
10:40: And now Michael is a zombie again. I think this video is an allegory for abusive relationships: one minute Michael is the loving boyfriend, the next he is a totally different (i.e. violent) person. The human-zombie cycle (or if we want to go back further the human-werewolf cycle) represents the periods of calm and violence that is inherent in these relationships.
10:48: Jane 2 is now in the haunted house. Jane 2, didn’t you learn anything from that werewolf film you just finished watching? Remember the forest scene?
11:15: Five zombies have busted into the house. Jane 2…
|11:27: And now Zombie Michael has busted his way into the house. This is definitely about abusive relationships: Regardless of whether Jane 2 is outside or inside, there is seemingly no way to escape Zombie Michael’s violence.|
11:47: WHAT? Now they are at what is presumably non-Zombie Michael’s house, and it turns out it was all Jane 2’s dream? Seriously, did Shyamalan direct this?
|11:58: Michael turns to the camera, and he has werewolf eyes! My brain is about to explode from all of these narrative twists. All I can say is thank god the credits are rolling—my brain is fried.
12:05: Turns out Thriller was directed by John Landis. Little known fact: John Landis is Finnish for “Shyamalan of the 1980s.”13:43: Credits over. They are magical, so please watch them.