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When I first become aware of a funny YouTube clip that’s been making the rounds, I rarely watch it more than once, but I can’t stop watching this Filipino-prisoners-doing-“Thriller” thing. Obviously, I’m not the only one–as of Sunday morning, the clip has been viewed over 553,000 times, which means it’s been seen about 550,000 times since I discovered it via Boing Boing on Friday. What makes a video like this so sticky, and why am I, a cynic who is usually fairly resistant to the lure of globalism kitsch, totally helpless in the face of its charms?
I think first we have to throw Michael Jackson out of the equation. I’m not going to say that the well for Michael Jackson jokes has completely, conclusively dried up, but I do think Keith Olbermann’s use of puppet reenactments during Jackson’s child molestation trial brought the idea of Jacko-as-walking-joke full circle.
This video isn’t funny because the inmates are emulating Michael Jackson specifically (though some of their choreography is certainly lifted straight from John Landis’ epic music video, the inmate coded as the protagonist also seems to throw in some moves of his own), and even if they were, it’s probable that Jackson’s products have the ability to move through other cultures free of the baggage of his personal problems.
There’s a small genre of Thriller spoof clips on YouTube, such as this version done in Lego, and this Bollywood take made for Indian TV. I don’t think the Filipino clip really fits into that genre; those videos seem to be more about faithfully recreating a classic with a winking conceptual twist.
The pleasure those videos produce is located in their rendition of the familiar; Filipino prisoner “Thriller” is much more about the element of surprise. The fact that a video exists of Filipino prisoners performing “Thriller” is itself a surprise; the fact that they’re so good at it is another. And there are little moments of shock all throughout, some generated by the performers, others by the impeccably timed camera work. From the first shot, you understand that the prisoner in the halter top seen from behind has to be a man, but there’s no substitute for seeing her spin around and being able to behold her full-on, tranny streetwalker weirdness.
This clip apparently represents a kind of Filipino prison tradition–there are several other videos on YouTube of inmates from the same prison performing choreographed renditions of American pop songs en masse. So why would this one catch on with viral video watchers, instead of, say, CPDRC Inmates doing the Sister Act?
I have to conclude that it’s in no small part due to the fact that these guys are really good at pretending to be zombies, and considering that it’s quite possible a portion of this group have been incarcerated for murder, rape and/or other violent crimes, the skill with which they mimic the undead is incredibly frightening. The sheer visceral experience of watching actual criminals enact some kind of zombie prison rape in homage to Western culture? That tops any experience I’ve had on YouTube … this week.