The [movie industry] ratings board reflect[s] the morals of the times. So now, with Reagan as president, it's all right to shred children, but bare breasts are pretty disgusting. The morality of the times is deeply sick.

Director John Landis,
American Film Institute speech,
January 27, 1982

SHORTLY AFTER 2:00 on the morning of July 23, 1982, actor Vic Morrow paced nervously in front of a mock Vietnamese village that had been erected in the Indian Dunes park just north of Los Angeles. After three straight weeks of night shooting, the entire company was feeling worn down. Now it was almost over. The last scene to be shot that night was also the very last scene in John Landis' episode of Twilight Zone — The Movie. It would show the destruction of the Vietnamese village in a series of enormous explosions. Everyone knew the first take had to be perfect, because once the village was demolished, the cost of rebuilding it would be prohibitive.

Years earlier Vic had had a premonition he was going to die in a helicopter crash. Vic Morrow had participated in difficult and dangerous scenes before, but tonight he felt particularly keyed up. On the one hand, the Twilight Zone film — produced by Landis and Steven Spielberg — represented his biggest career break in more than a decade, and he wanted the climax to be thrilling.

Yet Morrow could not help but feel uneasy as he watched the Huey helicopter approach the village for a final rehearsal; years earlier he had had a premonition that he was going to die in a helicopter crash.

Landis, who was twenty years Morrow's junior, gave the actor a pep talk to reassure him. Then the two Asian-born children who were to appear in the scene with Morrow were led onto the set. Chatting convivially to the kids and their parents, Landis tried to allay their fears as well. When the cameras were ready to roll, Landis waded into the shallow water of the Santa Clara River to signal the start of filming. The helicopter — a huge steel warship with rotor blades measuring forty-four feet in diameter — thundered toward the set.

Morrow was to carry the two children across the river while the chopper strafed them and the village exploded in the distance. In his screenplay, the thirty-one-year-old Landis had described the scene this way:

The helicopter makes another pass and then one of the huts EXPLODES in a spectacular fireball. Bill, holding a child in each arm, makes a Herculean effort and runs for the shallow river. With the huts burning behind them, Bill runs as best he can across the river.

While six cameras captured the action on film, director Landis shouted orders into his bullhorn: "Lower! Lower! Lower! Fire! Fire! Fire!" A cluster of grass huts exploded in the background as the low-flying helicopter swooped nearer to the flames. Battling the savage wind generated by the chopper, Morrow lost his grip on one of the children, Renee Chen, and she fell into the water. The next instant the helicopter was engulfed in a gigantic fireball and careened out of control. As pilot Dorcey Wingo struggled frantically to navigate his craft, it tumbled down, crushing young Renee with its right skid. Seconds later, Morrow and the other child, Myca Dinh Le, were decapitated by the craft's main rotor.

In the first few seconds after the crash, witnesses reacted with befuddlement and incredulity. Everyone knew that movies were fantasy. Surely the actors would pick themselves up and emerge from the water unscathed. As Landis watched the conflagration, he too was bewildered. "What the fuck is the helicopter doing in my shot?" he asked himself. And then he felt a sudden chill: "Oh my God, where are Vic and Myca and Renee?" House's first impression was that a dummy must have fallen out of the helicopter ... Then he saw Vic's head lying near the shore ...

Landis rushed toward the helicopter. Right behind him was his second assistant director, Anderson House, a young man working on one of his first major studio movies. House reached down and picked up Vic Morrow's torso. His first impression was that a dummy must have fallen out of the helicopter; he saw no blood, and the object he held felt oddly rubbery. Then he saw Vic's head lying near the shore, and the sudden revelation of what he was carrying hit him like a thunderbolt. "Oh my God!" he screamed. His cry carried all the way to the top of the cliff overlooking the river. Only then did the crew members gathered there realize the magnitude of the disaster. The next thing they heard was the shrill, keening wail of Renee's mother, Shyan-Huei Chen, who was kneeling over the crushed remains of her dead child, pleading with the girl to wake up.

The illusion that the filmmakers had sought to create was by now irrevocably shattered. One of the grisliest scenes in the history of American movies had just been played out, not on the screen but in real life.


While the deaths of Vic Morrow and his young co-stars received only perfunctory attention from the press, the criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter brought against director John Landis and four others catapulted the incident to the front pages of the nation's newspapers. Never before had a director been criminally charged for deaths occurring in the production of a film. Responsing to testimony that children had never before been filmed among special effects explosions, Landis' attorneys argued that filmmaking would stagnate if directors were barred from trying things that had never been done. As a defense for child endangerment, this argument left everyone wondering just who they were appealing to.

Defense tactics nonwithstanding, on May 29, 1987, nine months after the trial's opening, and after nine days of deliberation, the jury, much to everyone's surprise, aquitted the defendants of all charges. The jurors, while later acknowledging Landis' culpability, voted to acquit because the prosecutor had failed to prove that anyone could have foreseen the fatal crash.

A month prior to the decision, the lawyers in the parents' civil suits secretly agreed to settle, and Warner Brothers and the defendants' insurers paid $2 million to each family. In contrast, Vic Morrow's daughters, Carrie Morrow and Jennifer Jason Leigh, had settled almost four years earlier, in November 1983, receiving an estimated $900,000 from Warner Bros.

In response to pressure from the trial, the Screen Actors Guild issued that year safety reports indicating that the number of accidents involving its members had declined drastically, from 214 to 65 between 1982 and 1986. But when the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) included all crew members in the figures, the number of injuries in 1986 totalled a whopping 1,190, having actually risen from 846 since 1982, giving the film and television industry a rating worse even than that of mining. When Cal/OSHA included all crew members in the figures... [it gave] the film and television industry a rating worse even than that of mining.

"Stunt men get hurt all the time," explained 30-year stunt veteran Ronnie Rondell. "The top 30 stunt men are making $300,000. And there are a bunch making $100,000. We couldn't make that kind of money doing anything else." Perhaps because Morrow and his co-stars were principals and not stuntmen, their deaths could not be treated as business as usual.

Meanwhile, 7300 miles across the Pacific Ocean, on the very day the Twilight Zone case was closed, a Philippine Air Force helicopter hired by the Cannon Film Group for Chuck Norris' Braddock: Missing in Action III crashed into Manila Bay, killing four Filipino soldiers and injuring five people, including a member of the movie crew.