‘Thriller’ chills and disco thrills
Twenty-five years later, the dead are still alive and shakin’ in John Landis’ landmark video
- By Jacqui Gal
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, this year’s Tribeca Drive-In—part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s outdoor-screening series—will feature ghosts, ghouls and Solid Gold dancers at what’s being billed as “the world’s largest zombie disco.”
We caught up with director John Landis—the man behind the “Blues Brothers,” “Coming to America,” “Animal House” and countless other classics—for the scoop on what went into the making of this epic music video.
How did the whole project get off the ground?
Well, Michael Jackson called me out of the blue. He had seen Rick Baker’s work, transforming a man to a wolf in “An American Werewolf in London.” Michael was fascinated by the transformation and said he wanted to make a film in which he turned into a monster onscreen. Rock videos at that time were commonly made to sell records, and I wasn’t interested in that. But I was definitely interested in doing a theatrical short, and because [Michael] was so big, we knew there’d be interest in showing it. And it was a chance to do a dance number with really good dancers and shoot it correctly.
Was it difficult to get the financial backing for it?
We figured it would cost half a million, which was a lot since people were spending fifty to seventy thousand back then. CBS and Sony video told us to go fuck ourselves. There were already two successful videos that had been made [from the album]:“Beat it” and “Billie Jean.” Plus, the album was already No. 1 and had sold more records than any other in history when the video premiered. So Michael said, “Well, I’ll pay for it”, and I said, “Absolutely not.” He was still living with his parents then. He said, “Why don’t you film us making it? We can do ‘The Making of Thriller’ and that would be 45 minutes and the actual video would be 15, and it could be an hour [program] on Showtime.” When MTV heard we were going to show it on Showtime first, then they wanted it and they gave us money.
And the rest is history?
Well, it played [as a short] with “Fantasia” for two weeks in L.A. and was such a sensation. But then CBS fucked me because they gave the video free to every TV station in the world. Once “Thriller” got to MTV and was on international TV, like, 24 hours a day, the album went back to No. 1 and doubled its sales. It totally established MTV, and established the power of the medium.
Then I got a call from Austin Furst at Vestron who said, “I’d like to put ‘Thriller’ and ‘The Making of Thriller’ on VHS for home video.” I said, “It’s on TV for free. Who’d buy it?” He said, “I intend to put it out on sell-through for $24.95.” I thought, nobody’s going to buy this, but over a million sold. It created the home-video business.
How has the horror genre changed in the last 25 years?
The genre hasn’t changed; the budgets have changed—now they’re A movies and not B movies. Every decade has horror movies and monster movies. The truth is, horror movies have been the only really consistent genre. The major difference is that horror, even though it’s truly exploitation, it’s no longer considered B product.
What’s coming up for you now?
I have a book coming out, called “John Landis,” by Italian author Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan. It has interviews and articles by many collaborators of mine. We’ll be doing two book signings in New York. Also, I’m in the cutting room right now. I was one [of several directors] to shoot a show for NBC called “Fear Itself.” It’s like the son of “Family,” which I did for the “Masters of Horror” series. I’m most famous for my comedies—I think it’s a riot that I am a “master of horror.”