Monday, October 29, 2007

What the dead say about the living

“For no mere mortal can resist the evil of the Thriller.”

The zombie has become an American cultural icon. Like the blues, rock and roll and deep-fried twinkies, we can all safely say “Only in America” when it comes to zombies.

Just about this time in the year, zombies start appearing conspicuously. Just yesterday, I was walking down the sidewalk and found myself staring a zombie in a restaurant window enjoying a nice looking hotdog.

Why do we love the zombie? And why do we shriek in terror as the clumped masses of mindless bodies walk towards us? Do we simply love to be terrified?

To assist in the explanation of this cultural phenomenon, I will examine two videos from YouTube (both embedded below). One is the original Thriller short film directed by John Landis, starring Michael Jackson and Ola Ray. I will begin by examining the terrorism of Michael Jackson’s zombie character and advance the hypothesis that zombies are terrifying because they cannot be classified by normative binary classification. I will explore this thesis by examining it in relation to a second video entitled Indian Thriller with English Lyrics!

Thriller! -- Only hyperlinked not able to embed because of copyright

The Original
Thriller has been called the best music video of all-time. Is it because Thriller was the bestselling album in modern history? Because the incredible Quincy Jones produced it? Or simply because MJ is the King of Pop? Undoubtedly, the answer is all of the above.

Michael Jackson reigned supreme for an egregiously long period of time. Beginning at the age of seven with the Jackson 5, Michael has been a dominant and shaping force of pop music for forty years. Jackson can take credit for many monumental changes in the history of music, including the transformation of the music video.

I believe a significant part of Thriller’s power comes from the combination of investment and artistic vision. At the time, Thriller was the most expensive music video production. The $800,000 it cost to produce in 1983 translates to $1.4 million in 2007’s (weak) dollar. Despite the high budget, John Landis, the director, is relatively independent, known for making off-beat comedies and horror movies including Animal House, Blues Brothers and Coming to America (Wikipedia). Jackon’s co-star Ola Ray was a model and had no other major roles after her performance in Thriller.

Thriller, like all great stories, is a framework story. The viewer is decieved into believing there are in the moment when the shot changes and it becomes clear the viewer was merely watching a movie. In Landis’s films, this is called “breaking the fourth wall," a very post-modern expression of having the viewer aware of her own presence in the work.

[I denote minute markings when necessary]

The first series of shots shows Michael Jackson and Ola Ray in a Cadillac convertible circa 1950s driving down a country road. They run out of gas and are forced to walk in dark down the road. They start talking about their relationship when Michael dramatically stops, asks her to wear his ring. They hug, then this peculiar dialogue exchange:

MJ: “I have something I want to tell you.”
Ola: “Yes, Michael?”
MJ: “I’m not like other guys.”
Ola: “Of course not, that’s why I love you.”
MJ: “No, I mean, I’m different.”
Ola [playfully]: “What are you talking about?”

A shot of the sky shows the clouds pulling back to reveal a full moon. Michael starts writhing and turns into a horrifying werewolf. A suspense chase scene ensues.

At the moment of peak suspence, the director Landis breaks the proverbial wall. He cuts to a shot of a movie theater, where Michael (sans-fur) and Ola are watching the same move we have been watching. Ola, the moviewatcher as opposed to movie star, hides her face in Michael’s shoulder like a child. Michael, on the other hand, is having a blast.

The dichotonomy between the two characters signifies the different approach both have towards the occult, or unknowable. To not understand something scares Ola, who becomes childlike and primitive. Michael, however, seems emboldened by this experience of non-classifiable expression.

When Ola leaves the theater saying she “can’t watch anymore,” the song “Thriller” begins. Michael tries to calm Ola down by telling her “it’s only a movie.” He teases her for being scared of her own imagination, while she plays coy and indignant to his joking saying “she wasn’t that scared.” She gradually regains her composure as Michael begins to sing. They walk away from the theater.


The entrance of music must be understood as unifying these previously distant characters. The infectious beat from “Thriller” takes over their gait, causing Ola to walk in a deliberate, but steady pace. Michael also recognizes the beat in his walking, but immediately starts to dance. He recreates the lyrics somatically as they walk in a dark, foreshadowing of the events to come.


As Michael talks about the creatures of the night, he becomes obviously more energetic, more aggressive with his body language and moves. He promises to “guard her from the terror on the screen/I’ll make you see.” At this point in the film, the viewer may experience mild deja-vu as Ola and Michael are again walking down a deserted road, but this time it's "real". As the walk past a graveyard, the camera stays on the tombstones and we see a half-decomposed hand emerge from a grave. More zombies begin to emerge. Eek!


The zombies seem to be drawn out of the earth by an attraction. Perhaps the warmth of love between Ola and Michael? The zombies begin to surround the couple. The zombies are lethargic, body limbs are falling off and they are having trouble walking. As in the previous movie theater scene, Ola grips Michael. The viewer may feel concern as Michael himself looks a bit nervous. The camera pans in a circle from the perspective of Ola around the pack of zombies and then suddenly stops on Michael. He is green...part of the undead! The next shot frames Ola perfectly, looking shocked but, interestingly enough, not exactly scared.


The zombies fall into rank with Michael and they begin, arguably, the most famous dance sequence in the history of the moving image. Bodies formerly decrepit move in-sync with the undead King of Pop.

The dance may not be technically difficult, but it relies on strict timing. Percussion includes group handclaps and footstomps only useful in perfect coordination. In contemporary music videos, dancing such as this has been replaced by strippers. Rarely do we see coordinated, nonsexual dancing in popular music videos. For an example of the exception, see Spike Jones’s “Praise You"


Now, Michael Jackson has lost his zombie makeup and appears as himself. This does not faze the zombies, who continue to follow his lead. After the dance, the camera cuts to an archetypal abandoned haunted house. Ola, in cliché horror etiquette, runs blindly into the house. At this moment, we realize Ola is essentially irrational. The zombies begin breaking through the windows and doors as she continues to scream. Despite not knowing their intentions, she is scared shitless by the mortal peril her mind immediately tells her she is in.


The spell of fear is broken as soon as she is touched by Michael. We realize we have been in Ola’s head as she dreamed about zombies. John Landis breaks a profound wall between the viewer and the object.

The binary of “yes” and “no” is used by our industrial society to classify. Classifcation is important to keep the machine of society well-lubricated and functioning smoothly. Since there is significant interplay between society, political economy and individual, the dualism of an industrial political economy also effects our individual consciousness.

We rely upon the yes/no or dualistic mode of thinking to discern patterns in everyday life and assuage our primitive fears of going hungry, being attacked, etc. Computers, said to undermine our contemporary existence, relies on the transmission of 1s and 0s. Their cold calculating gives us comfort in the chaos of reality.

However, this binary experiences challenges. It is limited by it’s own duality. The best example of this challenge is that of the zombie.

What word do we use to describe the zombie? "Undead" is the usual default adjective. But what is the “undead” exactly? How can one be alive and dead at the same time? Our modern lexicon refrains us from properly textualizing the simultaneous existence of the two states.

To assure the doubtful readers, quantum physics also advocates the simultaneous existence of two states. Due to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, we cannot simultaneously know the position and velocity of a particle.

A classic example of the necessary simultaneous existence of both states comes from Schrödinger’s cat. In this famous mind-experiment, Irwin Schrödinger proposed placing a cat in a box. Once the cat was in the box, the observer would have no way of knowing the state of the cat. The cat could either be alive or dead. Schrodinger stated since the observer could not absolutely measure either state, she must assume both are simultaneously existing.

Dualistic thinking pervades our culture because it gives an illusion of certainty to existence. Black and white thinking may be bombastic, but it is certain. It is inevitable the ambiguous areas will provide near-paralyzing problems for someone invested in a dualistic system of thought.

In contemporary cultural terms, the term “homosexual” may be seem as a sort of zombie-like state. Someone who aesthetically appears to be a man yet interacts sexually with other men becomes “homosexual” or “gay.” The futility of this classification has been expressed by advocates of sexual and gender identity. The political correct anacronym for the ambiguously sexual has become a never-ending journey of consonants and vowels. First, the expression was LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender). There have been additions ever since including Q for queer or questioning, A for asexual or ally, T for two spirit, I for intersex, P for pansexual and polyamorous and, why the hell not, S for straight. An entire politically correct term would be then, in entirety, LGBTQATIPS.

But I digress. To explore the comparison of the zombie and the gay experience, we move onto our second video: Indian Thriller with English Lyrics! This video is based on a Bollywood recreation of Thriller. The team copied the choreography and translated into an Indian dialect. This video was discovered by an English-speaking videophile named Buffalax. Buffalax watched the video and attempted to superficially translate the Indian lyrics phonetically. In short, Buffalax watched an American-derived Indian film translated into an Indian dialect and culture; while watching, he took the Indian dialect phonetically and attempted to match the Indian collective phonemes into American words. The result is a gaudy Bollywood video with absurd American subtitles.

Imagine standing on the edge of a cliff and yelling a word. One would expect to hear the same phonetic expression echoed back. With a non-empirical, non-dualistic yet discrete notion or cultural phenomenon, we yell into the echo chamber of the modern world expecting to hear the same expression back. When the echoed expression is not what is expected, we can compare the differences or similarities with interest.


Such is the case of the main character in Thriller with English Lyrics! His first exclamation translates as:

Despite a few repeating verses, “GIRLY MAN!” is the man phrase. To me, this phrase seems more apt to describe a “zombie” than the most frequent word in Michael Jackson’s original music video, namely “Thriller.”

What makes the labeling of the Indian character in the film a “GIRLY MAN!” important is the basis of his simulacra. Michael Jackson, as a cultural icon in American society, is sexually ambiguous and some may feel deserves the title of girly man. Sexual ambiguity seems to be the ultimate insult and target of primitive violence in our American society.

Perhaps this is because it throws a wrench in the phallocentrism inherent in our society. Our society is male-dominated, both in political and cultural institutions. It is also industrially influenced, meaning industrial political economy characters are evident in our political, cultural and social society.

The horror exhibited by Ola Ray in the original Thriller embodies the fear of the unknown and the ambiguous, unclassifiable chaos of reality. In the face of the unclassifiable, she becomes infantile and leans over to her boyfriend for support and protection from the evil villians. To Michael, however, the unknown is exciting. He enjoys the unknown, the venturing forward into a place literally indescribable by human language. For Ola, this is terrifying. For MJ, it’s just thrilling.


Rich JC said...

i dig dawg. gonna forward to others. and i love the girly man video. mj is certainly a girly man. but what about michael jordan? number 23.

Taylor said...

Brilliant analysis. I would even venture to say that Ola's horror and Michael's express delight in viewing unknowable acts typifies the gender binary of the realm of the sublime as masculine and the realm of beauty as feminine. Maybe when society finally puts down its dildo women will be viewed as equal in the sublime realm of quantum mechanics/zombies. Also what about Mick Jagger (Dude looks like a lady??!!)? Michael J Fox?