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Twilight Zone: The Movie and the disaster that changed how films are made

Contributed by
Jul 6, 2018

Almost 60 years later, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone remains an immeasurable influence on science-fiction, horror and pop culture at large. The famed anthology series with one of the most iconic opening credits scenes on television was a melting pot of ambition as well as the home of some of the medium's great socially aware storytelling. Some of the great sci-fi writers of our time got their start on the original run of the show, from Ray Bradbury to Richard Matheson.

There have been two revivals since then, with a third in the works that will see Get Out's Jordan Peele on executive producer duties. The Twilight Zone is something that audiences and creators will always feverishly return to. Yet it is also The Twilight Zone where one of Hollywood's most shocking tragedies occurred, an accident of hubris, poor planning, and rule breaking that led to the deaths of an industry legend and two young children. It also reshaped how films are made to this day.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Produced by Steven Spielberg, who also directed a segment, it united some of the era's hottest talents under the familiar banner of spooky anthology storytelling. Joe Dante, George Miller, and John Landis joined Spielberg on the project, representing the new establishment of Hollywood: the blockbuster generation. Spielberg had reinvented the summer movie with Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark; Dante made a splash on the horror scene with The Howling; the first two Mad Max films had made Miller a daring new star of the action world; and Landis had directed three classics before he turned 35 — Animal House, The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London. These were four men whose work followed proudly in the footsteps of Serling and his team, pushing the boundaries of genre fiction and legitimizing high-concept storytelling as a favorite of mainstream audiences. It only made sense for them to dive into The Twilight Zone.

Three of the directors remade classic episodes of the show. Spielberg took on Kick the Can, while Dante adapted It's a Good Life and Miller revived arguably the most popular story from the series, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Only Landis would direct an original segment, titled Time Out. Partly inspired by episodes like What You Need and A Nice Place to Visit, the segment followed a bigoted man who finds himself thrown through history and experiencing the worst atrocities through the eyes of the victims. For example, he ends up in the rural South during the reign of the Klu Klux Klan, who see him as a black man and try to lynch him. It’s a classic Twilight Zone set-up, a socially conscious genre concept that forces wicked people to experience that which they inflict on the earth. Vic Morrow, a popular film and television actor, signed on to play the lead role. while Richard Matheson, Melissa Matheson (writer of E.T.) and George Clayton Johnson (co-author of Logan's Run) served as writers.

The segment ends with the lead character being captured by Nazi officers and flung into a railroad car with Jewish prisoners. This is because filming the original ending, wherein the man redeems himself by rescuing two Vietnamese children during a raid on their village, resulted in one of the industry’s most shocking accidents.

Landis’s segment in the film was intended to be a big special effects display, a noted contrast with the lo-fi nature of the series. This was The Twilight Zone for a generation of excess. Shooting was a mess from the get-go. Landis violated child labor laws to hire the two young children who would be rescued by Morrow. Seven-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen were paid under the table and hired without the appropriate permits because California's laws on the matter would not allow kids to work at night. Landis could have put in an application for a special waiver but chose not to because he didn't think he'd get it anyway. The scene included massive amounts of water and explosives, so such a request would most likely have been denied outright. The children's parents were also asked by associate producer George Folsey Jr. not to tell any of the on-set firefighters that their kids would be part of the scene. The set fire safety officer was also kept in the dark about this.

The scene involved a helicopter bombing the village Morrow was to save the children from. At the controls of this was Dorcey Wingo, a real-life Vietnam War veteran, but one with no experience working in film or stunt work. During rehearsals, the explosions had buffeted the helicopter and terrified Wingo, but he never told anyone of his worries. It was assumed that a man who had experienced war first-hand would know what to do, forgetting the obvious differences between real war and constructed situations. Landis also had a reputation for being a controlling director, one who frequently screamed, swore, and demanded more than was reasonable from his cast and crew.

Filming took place at Indian Dunes, a ranch that was popular for film and television productions due to its size, distance from the major cities, and varied landscapes. It made for the perfect stand-in for Vietnam, but it was also big enough to allow for larger explosion effects, which pleased Landis. Shooting of the scene started in the early hours of July 23, 1982. Morrow was directed to pick up the two children, one under each arm, and wade across the river set while being pursued by American soldiers in the helicopter flown by Wingo. The helicopter was stationed 25 feet from the ground, hovering near a large mortar effect. Explosions were detonated, but it was too much. Production manager Dan Allingham would later testify that he told Wingo, "That's too much. Let's get out of here" at this moment, but Landis, over the radio, shouted, "Get lower! Lower! Get over!" Wingo lost control of the helicopter as its rotor failed. Already at a low height, it crashed into the water. Morrow had dropped Chen and at that moment was reaching out to grab her. The helicopter fell on top of them. Morrow and Le were decapitated by the rotor blades. Chen was crushed to death.

Nobody reacted until Chen's mother started screaming. According to Morrow's friend, the actor's last words were, "I've got to be crazy to do this shot. I should've asked for a double." His character's lines in the scene, which he never got to say, were, "I’ll keep you safe, kids. I promise. Nothing will hurt you, I swear to God."

Following the tragedy, civil and criminal suits were filed against the film-makers. Landis, Wingo, production manager Dan Allingham, Folsey, and explosives specialist Paul Stewart were tried on charges of manslaughter. The trial was a major media event and one that remains controversial to this day. It took three years to get everyone in a courthouse. Deputy District Attorney Lea Purwin D'Agostino put on a show befitting of a Hollywood drama. She hissed "murderer" at Landis and dramatically offered him tissues when he began to cry on the stand. She was pitted against seven defense attorneys, all male, including a former Watergate prosecutor. One of them tried to have a mistrial declared on the grounds of D'Agostino's fervent prosecution. It didn't work, but D'Agostino didn't get a conviction either. Despite the defendants admitting that they broke child labor laws by having the kids on set in the first place, their defense that the accident was unavoidable won the jury over, and all men were acquitted.

Landis later wrote a letter to each of the jurors thanking them for positive comments they had made in a post-trial press conference. He also told the L.A. Times of the many job offers he received in the aftermath, as well as "a very nice letter from John Huston" and "a lot of supportive letters from prisoners, including one who had been sent away by D'Agostino." In 1996, Landis would contradict his own words on the increased job offers by saying, “The tragedy, which I think about every day, had an enormous impact on my career, from which it may possibly never recover.” Two years after his acquittal, he made Coming to America, the third highest grossing film of 1988.

The suits didn't end after the trial. All three families of the victims filed civil lawsuits and received settlements. All four parents testified that they were never told about helicopters and explosives that would be used in the scene. Le's father also testified that he had heard Landis demand the helicopter fly lower. A Vietnamese immigrant who had fled the nation after the war, Le's father admitted that the explosions had brought back traumatic memories for him. Renee Chen's mother, in a legal deposition, said "that she will continue to suffer serious mental anguish, emotional distress and severe depression for so long as she lives in the future."

There’s an old and very morbid joke about Hollywood: If you kill someone, you don’t go to jail, you just pay a fine.

The accident sent shock waves throughout the industry. It drove home how disastrously ineffective much of the era's safety regulations were. Almost immediately, action was taken. The Directors Guild of America began to more thoroughly discipline members who violated safety laws, and introduced a hotline for members, encouraging them to use it if their sets were not safe. Back at Warner Bros. the film's home studio, management became heavily involved in revamping the industry's attitudes to safety in regards to effects work. Eventually, the major studios began issuing the Injury and Illness Prevention Program manual to all employees. This practice continues to this day.

Twilight Zone Movie Vic Morrow

Actor Vic Morrow in Twilight Zone: The Movie.

The industry saw a major uptick in the hiring of risk-management specialists. In an interview with Slate, risk-management consultant Chris Palmer said, "The Twilight Zone accident created my job. It was a sea change in the movie industry. No one in risk management was ever on set before then." Risk managers aren't just present on-set. For a big-budget movie full of dangerous effects and stunt work, they will be there in the early stages of production. It's their job to ensure the safest shooting possible, be it through suggesting a better location or detailing the pros and cons of a certain scene in the script.

Risk-managers also can't be fired by a director or producer. This is crucial because one of the reasons accidents like this tend to happen is because cast or crew members are too afraid to speak up lest they lose their jobs. The director is often seen as dominant in their unimpeachable power, and this was Landis’ reputation. Filmmaking is often seen as a macho pursuit too, and on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Landis allegedly berated electrical workers for being "too chickenshit" to climb 30 feet of scaffolding while being buffeted by the winds and water rush of the helicopter so the scene could be appropriately lit. Producer Martin Bregman told the L.A. Times, "There are 100 people on a set who have always believed the director is God. Now they realize there's a higher god—a district attorney."

It's been 36 years since Morrow, Le and Chen were killed. Movie making has gotten much safer since then, but it remains an incredibly dangerous pursuit. CGI has greatly lessened risks, but audiences are hungry for more practical action scenes that feel “real." In 2011, an extra working on Transformers: Dark of the Moon was left permanently brain damaged and partially paralyzed when a steel cable snapped from a car being towed and hit her head. Dylan O'Brien suffered major injuries while making Maze Runner: The Death Cure, leaving many fearing that his career was over. Joi Harris, a celebrated stuntwoman, died while filming a motorcycle scene in Deadpool 2. Safety regulations are continually being improved, but there are always filmmakers who believe themselves to be above them. In 2014, a non-union shoot for Midnight Rider: The Gregg Allman Story ended in disaster when camera assistant Sarah Jones was struck by a train. The production did not have permission to film on the train tracks but went ahead with it anyway. The Safety for Sarah movement was launched afterward, demanding increased on-set safety, 31 years after Twilight Zone: The Movie.

To the shock of many, Twilight Zone: The Movie still received a theatrical release, although audiences weren't enthused about seeing the finished product given everything that had happened during its making. Watching the film now is a discomfiting experience. There are good scenes — everything in Joe Dante’s segment is demented bliss — but you can’t shake the memories of what it cost to make this. Everyone involved with its production seems eager to forget it happened, but to do so would overlook the seismic shift it created in the way films are made to this day. Safety regulations are stricter, and sets are safer in large part because this tragedy was so disturbing that nobody wanted it to happen again. For Hollywood, it was a hard lesson learned, but even then, further education is still required.