I saw the premiere of Thriller on local TV sometime around Christmas 1983 (if I'm not mistaken) with my teenage cousins. At that time, I did not remember the choreography or the song; instead, what I remembered most was Michael Jackson's fake werewolf eyes at the end, with Vincent Price's maniacal laughter in the background. It did not help that there were scenes of chases and monsters breaking into a house and other stuff that scared me as a seven year old.
Director John Landis said in an interview that the Thriller video was a "vanity project," not being part of any marketing plan for the album that didn't need any extra marketing. When the video was released, the Thriller album had already been in stores and selling like crazy for more than a year. Believe it or not, the song 'Thriller" was already the seventh single from the album, a strange song about a horror movie whose funk is as polished as it is dirty. The director also said that Michael Jackson wanted to do the video after seeing Landis' "An American Werewolf In London." Michael and Landis did something different with the video: it was actually more like a short film than a "promo" for a song, with the same muddy cinematography as the horror flicks so much in vogue at that time (which, along with Elmer Bernstein's additional musical score, just made it scarier). After "Thriller," music videos became longer and more ambitious, with storylines to boot. (Right. Blame "Thriller" for "November Rain.") Not only is the video an out-and-out horror film; like the song with its inspired Vincent Price cameo, the video is also a tribute to the horror movies made by Hammer films in the 50's and 60's, some posters of which appear in the cinema lobby in the video.
Never mind all those details. The thing that really made the video a cultural landmark was the choreography by Michael Peters and Jackson. That extended dance break in the middle where Michael is fully made up as a zombie? Pota, that's hand-down the coolest dance sequence ever captured in a music video. As Tyra Banks might say, that was totally FIERCE. That was the sequence that spawned a lot of copycats, inspired Regal Films in the '80s to put dance numbers in their movies, and turned Bollywood into the dance showcase that it is now, not to mention the Goli Mar and prison Thriller YouTube sensations, and countless Thriller dance-offs in wedding parties, high school reunions, and 80's-themed parties. Even if Michael Jackson had stopped making records after Thriller, that bit right there would still have ensured his immortality.
I already had the Thriller album before the eponymous single was released. "Billie Jean" was a huge hit, but the the only thing I remember about "Billie Jean" when I was a kid was the way Michael's path in the video would light up when he steps on it. I'm pretty sure I only started reaching for the Thriller tape after I had watched the Thriller music video, which was in constant play in local music video programs, and widely imitated in noon-time variety shows. In a way, the Thriller video, adjudged the Best Music Video of the '80s in numerous polls, was what made Michael Michael: the red-jacketed icon with the scary eyes and the moves to end all dance moves, the Michael the world loved and what it had just lost.