In 1981, Steven Spielberg – fresh off the back of Raiders of the Lost Ark – decided to make a movie based on The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s cult sci-fi series made famous by its shocking twists. To make the project a reality he enlisted help from close friend John Landis, a fellow director who’d enjoyed recent success with Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf In London.
The pair would be co-producers and also individually direct two of the four separate segments that comprised the film. But although Twilight Zone: The Movie was eventually completed and released, the production was shattered midway by a horrific tragedy that claimed three lives and destroyed Spielberg and Landis’ friendship for good.
Landis’ segment of the film follows a bitter and racist middle-aged man called Bill Connor. After a drunken confrontation with some African Americans in a bar, Connor finds himself inexplicably thrust into various time periods where he experiences persecution at the hands of Nazis, the KKK and finally a group of American GIs who mistake him for a Vietnamese soldier.
The climactic scene was to show Connor escaping across a river, dragging two Vietnamese children from their burning village as an attack ‘copter closed in on them. This would be the biggest stunt of the entire movie, a high-octane combo of explosions and gunfire that had to be captured in just a single take, as most of the artificial set would be burned down in the process.
Many of the crew were unsettled long before the fateful night of the shoot. Most of their concerns initially rested on the use of children in the scene, especially given the heavy use of explosives and dangerous machinery. To make matters worse, the script also called for the scene to be shot at night, which was further complicated by the child labour laws which prevented children from working past a curfew.
Some crew members suggested using dummies or even dwarf stuntmen instead of actual kids, but Landis persisted and eventually cast two Asian children – Myca Dinh Le, aged 7, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, aged 6 – who he paid with cash to keep them off the payroll. The kids were thrilled at the prospect of appearing in a movie, while their parents thought it would be a memorable experience for them to cherish in later life.
At 11.30pm on July 23, 1982, the cast and crew gathered by the Santa Clara river in Indian Dunes Park, a private area just north of LA. A fake Vietnamese village had been constructed on the bank out of bamboo and cardboard, ready for incineration when the big moment arrived.
Before filming commenced, Landis set up a shot of the chopper flying through flames as bombs exploded beneath. In what should have been a terrible omen, the shot almost ended in disaster when one of the explosives obscured the ‘copter’s windshield. The pilot had to lean out of his window to see where he was going, only for his face to be scorched by the flames below.
Somehow the pilot managed to maintain control and land the machine, and promptly complained to assistant director Dan Allingham that the pyrotechnics shouldn’t be detonated so close to the vehicle. Allingham agreed to take the matter up with Landis. Meanwhile, as Landis discussed those same fireballs with other members of the crew, the director allegedly boasted: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Finally it was time for the climactic shot. Vic Morrow, the actor playing Connor, took up position in the river with the two children. The kids were nervous so Morrow pulled faces and joked with them to lighten the mood, even though he was secretly just as anxious.
At last Landis called for action, and the three pushed out into the cold, murky water. Morrow had Le and Chen under his arms as he struggled against the vicious winds cast down from the ‘copter’s rotor blades. Fierce columns of flame leapt up from the banks either side, while Landis screamed through his bullhorn: “Lower! Lower! Fire! Fire!”
The pilot had descended as far as he dared, but quickly realised that something was wrong. He desperately struggled to keep the machine under control until two final charges exploded, just close enough to send the ‘copter spinning out of control.
Below, Morrow lost his grip on Chen. He struggled backwards to try and snatch her up again, but too late – the ‘copter plunged into the water, right on top of them. As the machine groaned and settled, and the flames died down around it, a terrible silence replaced the explosions and gunfire. A moment later, Landis called out: “That’s a wrap! Leave your equipment where it is. Everyone go home. Please, everyone go home.”
Some of the crew followed his orders, still dazed by what they’d just seen. Others piled into the river to search for Morrow and the children. The hunt didn’t take long. Morrow and Le’s headless bodies were floating beside the wreckage, decapitated by the ‘copter’s rotor blades. Chen had died just as quickly, crushed beneath the vehicle’s right skid as it slammed into the river.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the grieving families of the victims filed lawsuits and Landis – who remained traumatised and heavily medicated for several months – faced criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter. Although he was found innocent, this was the first time a director had ever been charged over deaths during the production of a film. The families eventually received compensation, while child actor regulations were later changed for scenes shot at night or involving heavy use of special effects.
Meanwhile, Twilight Zone The Movie was released in 1983 to mixed reviews. Landis’ segment in particular was singled out for its hammer-blow moralising, with Time Magazine stating: “The story hardly looks worth shooting, let alone dying for.” The climactic scene was absent from the final product.
Two bizarre twists to the tragedy almost propels it into Twilight Zone territory for real. Firstly, on the very day the case against the production was closed, a Philippine Air Force helicopter that had been hired for the Chuck Norris film Braddock: Missing In Action crashed during a shoot in Manila Bay, killing four Filipino soldiers.
The second, more haunting, twist was a vision that Morrow had several years before the Twilight Zone movie, which led the actor to predict – with chilling accuracy – that he would some day be killed in a helicopter crash.