Remembering Brandon Lee’s Death 20 Years After ‘The Crow’

You’d be hard pressed to find a movie out there steeped in as much mystery and controversy as The Crow. (Maybe Cannibal Holocaust, but that’s not exactly mainstream fare.) Based on James O’Barr’s comic book, the film was supposed to be Brandon Lee’s springboard to movie stardom, but instead, ended in tragedy.

The Crow — which happens to be available for streaming on Netflix, I might add — came out 20 years ago today, and in that time has spawned sequels, video games, lawsuits, and rumors. Between the anniversary and the inevitable remake in the works, now is the time to go digging into the movie’s mystery.

– Let’s take a look at the false rumors and allegations surrounding Brandon Lee’s death. There have been lots of rumors about how and when exactly Brandon Lee died while filming the movie. So, to hopefully clear some of the smoke surrounding his death, we’ll break it down by the rumors and what actually happened — or at least what those on set said happened.

Rumor A: Lee was fatally shot during the “Big Moby” gun-fight scene. The fatal shooting that killed Lee involved the scene with the rape of Shelly and the death of Lee’s character Eric Draven. The script called for Lee to enter the room holding a bag of groceries that contained explosive blood packs, and for actor Michael Massee to shoot Lee, setting off the blood pack. This is where things went horribly wrong.

Rumor B: Lee was shot in the head. Lee was not shot in the head, but shot in the abdomen with the bullet hitting his spine. Immediately following the incident, a paramedic on site began to administer CPR with Lee being transported to New Hanover Regional Medical Center 30 minutes later. According to a People Magazine profile of the incident, Lee’s doctor struggled for five hours to save the actor.

Dr. Warren W. McMurry began desperately trying to stanch the bleeding, but at the end of the five-hour operation, Lee’s condition had not improved. “There was so much blood loss, ” McMurry says. “It wouldn’t clot. It was oozing from everywhere.”

Rumor C: You see Lee’s death in the movie. Watch this movie with a group of people and somebody will undoubtedly say “dude, he for real died in this scene, look closely and you can see it!” It’s been fueling online movie forums since 1993. There is no actual footage of Lee’s death — or at least none that has ever been found in the darkest corners of the internet. Those involved with the film say the footage of Lee’s fatal shooting was destroyed without ever being developed.

– Brandon Lee’s death was largely due to cost-cutting measures. Gun-play was a common place on the set with Lee telling one interviewer that during a scene he was shot “60 or 70 times.” The scene that took Lee’s life was rather simple compared to the previous action sequences, calling for a .44 Magnum revolver to be cocked and pointed at the camera. To achieve the close-range of the camera shot, the bullets loaded had real brass caps, but no powder.

The mistake happened when the freelance arms-master, James Moyer, was told by Carolco Studios he would no longer be needed and that the prop-master could finish the remaining scenes. After the closeup shot, the props-master dry-fired the gun, which knocked the slug off an empty cartridge and into the gun’s barrel. The gun was then loaded with powerful blanks that when fired by actor Michael Massee, propelled the slug out of the barrel and into Lee.

– Lee talked about his death and even joked about the movie’s blood. Even before filming started, friends of Lee said that he would talk about death and a premonition that he would die suddenly, like his father. To get into character as a rock star risen from the grave, Lee filled a dozen bags of ice and surrounded his body with them to see how it would feel to be a dead body in the ground. It’s a bit eerie in retrospect, but Lee was also pretty laid back about all the bloodshed during filming.

“[Lee] strolled into the Fitness Today health club and pulled up his shirt, then laughed loudly. “Look at this!” he said to fitness consultant Donna Lamanna, pointing to the fake blood that clung to his rippling, washboard stomach. “This blood is still stuck on me!”

– Actor Michael Massee has not seen the film. After the accidental shooting, Massee, who played Funboy, took a year off from acting, and not surprisingly, has never watched the completed film.

– A number of serious accidents happened when shooting the film. The Crow had some bad juju associated with it from the beginning and Lee’s death was the standout in a series of accidents. For starters, on the first day of principal photography, a carpenter received serious burns when a scissor lift he was driving came into contact with power lines. Other accidents that plagued the film involved a stuntman accidentally falling through the roof of a set, a crew member driving a screwdriver through his hand, a truck catching fire, and an angry carpenter driving his car into a plaster shop. Filming was also delayed on several occasions because of hurricanes off the North Carolina coast.

– Actor Jon Polito was concerned about Brandon’s well-being after an on-set accident. Breakaway glass in movies is used because it’s safe for actors to smash through without injury. Lee sustained an injury from the glass though during his first scene with Jon Polito, and it worried the veteran actor:

“I remember my first scene with him was his breaking through the glass to come into my shop at the end of the fight. And I remember him breaking through the sugar glass and his body got cut. I remember one of the first things I said to that man was, “Don’t pull a Vic Morrow on this film. Don’t endanger yourself in any way.” Vic Morrow was still fresh on our minds at that time.”

(Vic Morrow died while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie.)

– Brandon Lee wasn’t the first choice for Eric Draven. James O’Barr wasn’t thrilled about the casting of Lee for the film adaptation of his comic book. If Barr had gotten his way, Johnny Depp, Christian Slater or River Phoenix would have been playing the lead role.

– Lee’s scenes were completed using revolutionary CGI technology. The film began under Paramount Pictures, but after the shooting, the company quickly abandoned the project. It was actually Entertainment Media Investment Corporation that decided to buy the film and finish it using newly developed CGI technology and body doubles.

For example, effects team Dream Quest Images superimposed Lee’s face on a body double in the scene where we see Eric Draven’s face in a smashed mirror. In total, the team spent between 500-600 hours on effects to bring Brandon Lee “back from the dead.”

Sources: IMDB, Examiner, A.V. Club, Deadman Crow Fan