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"Thriller" begins with a creaking door, footsteps on the floor, thunder, and a hot eighties pop beat that sounds like it could have been created on a Casio keyboard. But the story of "Thriller," the title song for the most popular album in music history, goes far beyond the song's unusual combination of catchy beats and creepy themes. "Thriller" owes its long-term success to its blockbusting, genre-rocking music video, which is widely recognized as the greatest music video ever made. And the video owes its success to an all-important cultural figure, a figure that looms at least as large as Michael Jackson: the zombie.
Like vampires, werewolves, and Justin Bieber fans, zombies are everywhere. The 1984 "Thriller" video shows Michael Jackson transforming first into a werewolf, and then into a zombie, all while terrorizing his girlfriend (played by 1980's June Playboy Bunny, Ola Ray). In more recent years, Hollywood and its B-movie affiliates have given us gems like Zombieland, Flight of the Living Dead, and Zombie Strippers. But zombies in American culture date all the way back to the 1930s, when the idea of the zombie was introduced to the U.S. from Haiti.
Lots of people don't know that zombies have their origins in the Haitian voodoo or voudoun religion. Although many in the U.S. have heard of "voodoo" as a sort of fanciful magic, or as part of a song lyric that sticks in the head, voudoun is actually from a Dahomey word meaning "spirit" or "god." The voodoo religion emerged when Haitian slaves, kidnapped from West African countries by the French, merged a variety of traditional West African belief systems with elements of Roman Catholicism. The religion includes belief in one great spirit as well as elements of magic and sorcery performed by select priests and priestesses. One obscure power possessed by some voodoo priests was to turn a human into a "zombi," which meant the priest could kill the person in body and soul, and then restore the body from the dead to work for him or her. The zombi, or living dead, became like a slave to their powerful master.
Understanding slavery is actually key to understanding zombies. The Haitians, remarkable for their merging of cultural beliefs into voodoo, were also remarkable for being the world's only nation of free slaves after they revolted against the French and won a national victory in 1804. Haiti was the world's first black republic, a political and spiritual miracle for the Haitian citizens and a palpable threat to the colonial masters. Most of white America viewed Haitians with fear and loathing, and probably the Haitian people were worried about their slaveholding neighbors in the north, too.
By the time the zombie infested America, U.S. slavery was a thing of the past—but Jim Crow racism was alive and kicking. And, even more significantly, the U.S. was in the middle of a military occupation of Haiti that began in 1915 and did not end until 1934. This military occupation, supposedly begun on humanitarian grounds, was opposed with strikes and riots in Haiti as economic conditions worsened in the late 1920s.
In 1929, a white American named W.B. Seabrook traveled to Haiti and wrote a sensationalistic travelogue about his experiences with voodoo and magic in Haiti, The Magic Island. The book brought zombies to American culture in a chapter called "Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," which described zombies as a sort of undead pseudo-slaves. "The eyes were the worst," wrote Seabrook (who, by the way, was a superstitious alcoholic with a Haitian-culture fetish), "It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but incapable of expression."
Embellished though it was, Seabrook's vivid depiction (which also appeared as a series of racially stereotyped illustrations in the book) was enough to inspire the first American zombie movie, White Zombie, in 1932. White Zombie and other zombie films of the 1930s took place in Haiti and stuck to the depiction of zombies as human-made drones with a vindictive master: a straightforward allegory for the fear of mass enslavement.
Zombies marched right out of the graveyard and into the public domain. But their identity would undergo another transformation in 1968 with the release of the definitive zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead. This low-budget flick changed the nature of zombies. Instead of working for a master, the ghoulish drones in George Romero's blockbuster were created by a radiation accident. And in addition to lacking minds and emotional sensibilities, they were also bloodthirsty. Zombies could infect each other through bodily fluids. A mass of violent zombies represented something apocalyptic, futuristic, and out of human control.
From drone zombies and technological-accident zombies came a skin-crawling junkyard of zombie types: super-predators, parasitic zombies, cannibalistic zombies, infectious viral zombies, and zombies created by radioactivity. After Night of the Living Dead, the un-dead exploded into the popular mind. Directors like Romero used zombies to make a statement about war and capitalism.
But even before Romero, zombies represented fears in the American consciousness. The Haitian drone zombie in White Zombie clearly relates in some way to slavery and military occupation, though some have argued that it was also about capitalist alienation in the days of Henry Ford's new mass-production factories. In the 1940s, similar drone zombies were often controlled by Nazi spies, an obvious expression of World War II-era fears. In the 1950s, when the possibility of nuclear war invaded the American psyche, zombies controlled by atomic energy were invented. In the 1960s, as the U.S. pushed to get its first shuttle to the moon, aliens were the new fad in zombie-making. In the 1970s, zombie films revealed growing fears of toxic waste and overwhelming consumerism. And, of course, in every era there were zombie films that were pointless, comic, or "just some good old-fashioned zombie mayhem" with no real social message.
With all this bloody social commentary going on, though, it's hard not to wonder if the zombie-driven "Thriller" video was intended as some sort of metaphor for the social plagues of the early 1980s. In the film, Michael Jackson first appears with Ola Ray in a 1950s after-the-prom type scene. After asking Ray to go steady with him as they walk near a graveyard, Jackson suddenly turns into a werewolf. Just as he chases down Ray's character and catches her, the camera cuts to an image of the two sitting in a movie theater in the early 1980s. Having just seen herself get mauled by a werewolf on screen, Ray is scared, so they leave the theater and walk home along city backstreets. Jackson, dancing and singing in his now-classic red leather get-up, walks Ray home past a cemetery, joking about how he's going to show her some real thrills. Suddenly, a chorus line of real zombies emerges from the ground and the city's sewage system. They surround the couple, and Jackson himself turns into a zombie before they perform the famous "Thriller" dance in formation. Dancing past warehouses and chain link fences that look like Detroit, Chicago, or parts of L.A., the zombie posse scares Ola Ray into a gothic haunted house and follows her inside before she wakes up and realizes it's all a dream—or is it?
As the zombies invade the backstreets, Vince Price's creepy voice tells us that "Creatures crawl in search of blood/ To terrorize y'alls neighborhood." Is "Thriller" following the zombie-flick tradition of making a social statement?
The forces terrorizing neighborhoods in this era included the early days of the AIDS crisis, high unemployment in urban centers, racial polarization, and the spread of crack cocaine addiction through poor communities. From 1980 to 1982, the U.S. was in a recession that was worse than the recent "Great Recession" by some measures. Gangs, a relatively new social phenomenon, were also on the rise. Gang violence was a part of the inspiration for "Beat It," another hit track on Thriller which is filmed against a similar backdrop. It also includes gang members rising up out of a sewer in an almost-identical shot to the "Thriller" shot of a zombie coming out of a sewer. Even though "Thriller" was mainly written to produce a hit, the creatures who terrorize "y'alls neighborhood" in the song and video allow us to imagine plenty of connections to social and political issues of the time.
Michael Jackson revolutionized music videos, he revolutionized pop albums, and he took the zombie genre to another, more danceable level. These days, pandemic zombies, whose zombiedom spreads like a plague, have become dominant,"no doubt a reaction to AIDS, Ebola, cloning, genetically modified foods and the remainder of the brave new world of biotechnology."
Can "Thriller" tell us something about the eighties (other than that red leather pants were acceptable street fashion)? Can the zombie flicks that come out in our own era tell us something about ourselves?