Vincent Price was right: "No mere mortal can resist the evil of the Thriller" -- even after the funk of almost 30 years.
Yes, 2013 will mark three decades since Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video stalked into the national psyche and, eventually, into the Library of Congress as "the most famous music video of all time."
The zombie song-and-lurch remains as popular as ever because of a growing interest in learning the dance steps to perform at wedding receptions, school programs, civic flash mobs -- even while killing time in prison, as a group of Filipino convicts did in 2007, in a video that's garnered more than 51 million views.
"I don't think 'Thriller' ever died, no pun intended," said Monica Mohn, a former ballroom dancing champion in Minneapolis who is teaching more than a dozen "Thriller" classes this month, mostly through community education. Some students grew up with the video, but others weren't even alive when it first aired on Dec. 2, 1983. The current zombie craze also is a factor.
But mostly, weirdly, credit the weddings.
Mohn recalled describing something in the video to one group, "and they looked at me and said, 'What video?' They only knew the dance from wedding receptions."
Last week, Mohn taught the dance to a group of teachers at Plymouth Creek Elementary School, who will perform it at the school's fall festival this month. The students spanned decades, from new to retired teachers. After 1 1/2 hours, they had the moves down, thanks to lots of repetition to create what Mohn called "muscle memory."
Marc Wegner, a third-grade teacher, sported a sheen of sweat at the break. "I'm not as rhythmically gifted as some," he said, laughing. "The steps go by really fast."
Breaking it down
The dance isn't a dead (sorry) ringer for Jackson's "Thriller" video. "It couldn't be," Mohn said. "That's a 14-minute story and is very complex." What she does, as dance instructors nationwide do, is piece together iconic parts of the video to make a sort of "homage to Michael Jackson." Stomps are expected. The twitches? Crucial. "And you need the claws," she said.
Mohn breaks down the dance into discrete portions, creating a story with cues to help students remember the order of the moves.
"If you can count to eight, you can do 'Thriller,'" she told the group, then moved them through the opening zombie steps (forward four, backward four, repeat). Her arms flailed menacingly as she stomped through the steps, hunched over and writhing, while the teachers looked as if they were shuffling through the school lunch line. But over the course of the class, their inner zombies began to emerge.
The signature "twitch" came next -- a sharp flinch of the shoulder on beats one, five and seven.
Mohn then led them through the "surfer dude" move, the "ripping open a bag of chips" move, then "dangling dinosaur" and "cheerleader" moves (inspired by bad movie matinees).
Next was the "exhausted drop," in which they were directed to bend from the waist and lunge to one side (two, three, four) then shift their weight to the other leg and, on two, suddenly snap their heads up "like you're selecting your next victim." (three, four).
As the "Thriller" refrain poured from the boombox, it was time for "the Michael," a move that started benignly ("Shift your weight to your right leg") before Mohn asked the teachers to fully commit themselves to the moment: "Squeeze your butt cheeks as hard as you can. That's going to make your hip pop right out."
On the eight count, that sounded like, "One, squeeze, three, squeeze, five, squeeze, drop and look."
At this point, everyone began to appreciate what an amazing performer Michael Jackson was.
After that, Mohn demonstrated "the claw" move, which segued into a stomp and a turn that left the zombies facing the left wall of the gym. They began the sequence of steps again, eventually turning to the back wall, then to the right wall and finally ending up facing front as Vincent Price's inimitable cackle reverberated off the gym mats.
The deader they got, the better they looked.
"There's usually a moment," Mohn said later, "when you can see that someone is fulfilling their dream of being the dancer they always wanted to be. And that's wonderful."
Over the years, some cities began staging "Thriller" re-enactments for Halloween. In 2007, a dance event called Thrill the World began in Canada. More than 1,700 people in 17 countries participated, and the event has become an annual undertaking (sorry!), with the added motivation of breaking the world record for simultaneously dancing zombies.
"It strikes a chord with people," Mohn said of the continuing popularity. Some people want to learn it for a specific occasion, while others just have it on their bucket list. "The best ones are the intergenerational groups, where you have the grandfather who has no idea what this is, with the mom who grew up with the song, who brings in her kids, and they're all learning it together."
As the Plymouth Creek teachers wrapped up, they already were brainstorming how to perfect their zombie look. "Just get some old clothes you can shred," said Jane Panning-Miller, who teaches third grade and, it must be said, does a mean "Michael." "Like that gray sweater you have," she said, looking at Wegner, who immediately protested: "Hey, I still wear that!"
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the Thriller
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185