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Lost on VHS: MAKING MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER

I have a confession to make: When I was a kid, I was a huge Michael Jackson fan — so much so that I took a little heat from it from other kids. Despite this, I was scared to death of the THRILLER music video. I grew up in a time when my Dad would rent several movies, almost nightly, and make copies of them. As such, we had a massive library of movies to watch — sometimes ending up with multiple copies — and MAKING MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER was on several of them.

I still have vivid memories of when that classic Vestron Video logo would pop up… and when it did, I knew that THRILLER was about to come on the TV. I’d run out of the room, cover my ears and beg whomever was watching it to turn it off. In hindsight, it was one of the first things to ever really scare me in that way — all without having ever seen it.

Cut to me not too long after — at around 6 or 7, when horror was beginning to work its way steadily into my movie diet, particularly with movies in the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. Once I felt brave enough, I decided to give THRILLER a real try. What happened is what you might expect: I loved it — every bit of it. The zombies, the dancing, the music… there just wasn’t anything not to like about it. Even better still was the fact that it had that aforementioned making-of attached to it — and I watched it over and over again.

Growing up during the 1980s and early ’90s, making-of documentaries and behind-the-scenes specials weren’t dime-a-dozen fare like they are now; there weren’t really enough people interested in watching them for a market to conceivably exist. Thanks to companies like HBO, the Criterion Collection, and Full Moon Pictures, behind-the-scenes specials would crop up occasionally; however, there were few that went as in-depth with the process as MAKING MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER did.

Produced by Optimum Productions and directed by Jerry Kramer — whom some might recognize as the director of the cult classic MODERN GIRLS — Vestron Video released MAKING MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER on not just VHS, but also Beta, Laserdisc, and CED. It was huge hit and, unsurprisingly, one of Vestron’s all-time best sellers. Shot during and slightly after production wrapped, the documentary gives one an intimate behind-the-scenes pass, as well as clips from some of Michael‘s other music videos — many of which weren’t available on home video at the time. Opening with the video itself, then running for about 45 minutes, it also featured animated Chapter interstitials by the Chiodo Brothers — and even though a chapter structure is in place for it, things manage to stay loose and it doesn’t always stay on the subject at hand.

Highlights are varied and plenty: There’s the filming of the zombie dance number, a group of eager fans watching the production on location from the sidelines and giving interviews, an amusing moment when Landis tells the story of Michael accidentally calling him at 2 am while he was on vacation in London, several clips of other Michael Jackson videos and performances, and Michael saying AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON convinced him that Landis was the person for the job of directing — even though he’d hardly seen any of Landis’ other films.

We then get into the make-up process with Rick Baker, interviewed as he’s removing his zombie appliance from the cameo he had just recently shot. We also see him and his crew applying the various make-up jobs — including the painstaking process of transforming Michael into a werewolf, from conception to appliance. This includes taking a life-cast of Michael and putting a set of very uncomfortable contact lenses in his eyes. There’s also a sped-up montage of Michael’s werewolf make-up being applied, interspersed with random behind-the-scenes moments.

Other snippets include the filming of the graveyard scene, and the moment when all of the zombies break into the house to get to co-star Ola Ray. We also get a glimpse of Mick Garris on the set as one of the zombies. Sadly, no interview with Garris was conducted, because at the time he was merely a behind-the-scenes person, and not the genre icon he would soon become. (Fortunately, his friendship with John Landis scored him a cameo.) There’s also footage of the video being edited, the famous photo shoot of Michael posing in the middle of a group of zombies, and the extensive dance rehearsals with choreographer Michael Peters. Other highlights include some funny moments of Landis being silly with Michael on the set — including picking him up and carrying him around on his shoulders.

All of this fantastic behind-the-scenes material has yet to make an appearance on modern home video formats. Despite being dated, it’s basically filmmaking in a box, and highlights the great relationship that Landis and Michael had while working together. Needless to say, it’s a treasure trove of material that needs to be unearthed and included in a release of some kind, somehow. Nowadays, the only way to see it is to find a used copy of it — or simply to look it up on YouTube (assuming it hasn’t been pulled down for copyright infringement).

Where the distribution rights lay for MAKING MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER, or if the Jackson estate even wants it released to modern media, remains to be seen. Other likely reasons for its absence might include problems with music licensing, as well as obtaining the rights to footage from other movies and TV shows. It’s likely so expensive to pursue this that nobody really wants to do it… which would really be a shame.

It’s sad to think that this documentary companion to one of the most historic and beloved music videos of all time has yet to surface in better quality than we have now. Here’s hoping that somebody will find the legal resources, time, and money to pull it off… and maybe then I can finally retire my VHS copy for good.

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