Turning into a zombie: How ‘Thriller’ became a Utah Halloween favorite

SALT LAKE CITY — Odyssey Dance Theatre performers make the transformation from beautiful dancers to ghoulish zombies every season in their production of “Thriller.”

And what’s more, they enjoy it.

“It’s really fun to really become that character, … to watch your face transform,” said Amber Morain, who has been performing with Odyssey Dance Theatre for four seasons.

“Thriller,” now in its 21st year, has become a favorite Halloween tradition among Utahns.

The show is a compilation of vignettes featuring dances from popular Halloween monsters, including Frankenstein, mummies, witches and vampires. The opening number of the show is a zombie dance to Michael Jackson’s hit 1982 song “Thriller,” the production’s namesake.

“We pay homage to Michael because he had the idea that zombies have to dance — go figure,” said Derryl Yeager, founder and artistic director of Odyssey Dance Theatre.

The dancers learn from company veterans who have performed “Thriller” in past seasons to put on zombie makeup themselves for the opening number. Morain said it’s cool to invent new ways of reflecting through makeup how her character may have died and to see the change from dancer to zombie in the mirror throughout the process.

“I try to find the ugliest lines on my face and accentuate them and think about how I died and how that character is going to come alive when we do ‘Thriller,’” Morain said. “Getting shot, drowning, getting run over — seeing those things visually, putting them on my face, is always really fun because you can create a new character every single night.”

Odyssey Dance Theatre’s “Thriller” was born when Yeager was looking for a show to do around Halloween time but didn’t have the budget for something like a full-length “Dracula.” Someone suggested doing vignettes of different Halloween characters instead, and the response to this idea was amazing, Yeager said.

By its third year, “Thriller” had sold out performances. The show has since become Odyssey Dance Theatre’s equivalent of Ballet West’s “Nutcracker,” according to Yeager, and helps to provide the company’s funding throughout the rest of the year.

“It’s really touched a nerve,” Yeager said. “Utah’s really loved the show, and they come back year after…

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