[It Came From the ‘80s] The Enduring Legacy of John Landis, Rick Baker, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” - Bloody Disgusting
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[It Came From the ‘80s] The Enduring Legacy of John Landis, Rick Baker, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

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With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades laterGrotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.

In the era where MTV was dedicated to playing music videos for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it was the most common form of self-promotion for a music artist. But for all the memorable music videos that filled MTV’s programming throughout the decades since its inception, none are as famous or as culturally transformative as that of Michael Jackson’s 14-minute long music video of “Thriller”. When sales had begun to decline for Michael Jackson’s Thriller album in the summer of 1983, Jackson wanted to brainstorm ways to boost those sales. After seeing An American Werewolf in London, he contacted John Landis to direct a video, something outside the norm at the time. He agreed to do it so long as it was a short film. Landis, in turn, contacted Rick Baker to handle the video’s special effects once Jackson told him that he wanted to transform into a monster.

That move proved pivotal, not just in terms of great special effects but also in terms of making the music video marketable. Showtime and MTV footed the half million dollar budget to make the video in return for the rights to air the making of documentary feature Landis and Baker made in tandem with the video. That documentary became a huge seller upon home release.

Based on Jackson’s simple direction that he wanted to transform, Landis wrote a script that was a loose parody of I was a Teenage Werewolf. For Baker, he wasn’t interested in creating another werewolf. He’d already done that with great success in An American Werewolf in London. To keep it different, he opted to transform Michael Jackson into a more cat-like were-creature, though using a lot of the same techniques for the transformation sequence. It was Jackson’s suggestion that zombies be included, as well.

Baker also had to adjust to the lightning-fast pace of music videos. The dancers were hired three days prior to shooting, giving Baker no time to prepare for the customized zombie makeup. To adjust, and to save on time, he enlisted his crew (and Baker himself) to be the more customized, close-up zombies seen in the video. They pretty much all had life casts done already, so it was easy to create the zombie makeups from there. The dancers would then get more generic makeups. Baker created generic eye appliances that could be fitted on any of the dancers to give them the appearance of sunken eyes. Though this was a result of time constraints, it kickstarted a trend that would ensue in subsequent zombie films by others.

Once completed, “Thriller” very nearly didn’t survive to be unleashed upon the public. Jackson was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness at the time, and when they caught wind that he was doing a werewolf video, they threatened excommunication for creating a video that promoted demonology. He then became vehemently opposed to the video’s release. To assuage his worry, Landis offered to put in a disclaimer that “Thriller” didn’t reflect Jackson’s personal views.

Between Jackson’s catchy earworm song, Vincent Price’s narration, Landis’ sense of humor, and Baker’s fantastic special makeup effects, “Thriller” revolutionized the music video. It was the first music video to ever be inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, in 2009, and remains the most famous music video of all time. A Halloween staple and an important pop cultural moment, “Thriller” is an enduring collaboration between music royalty and horror royalty.


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