In "The Crow," the first sight of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) is decidedly unsettling: Dead a year, he is scratching and kicking his way out of a muddy grave, a howl of rage directed at the thugs who killed him and his fiancee the day before their wedding. It's a visceral, kinetic introduction to an emotionally dark, unrelentingly violent film.

There's a similar spectral fury to James O'Barr's graphic novel on which the film is based. "The Crow's" roots are in O'Barr's anger over the death of his fiancee at the hands of a drunken driver in 1979. As grief therapy, O'Barr conjured Draven as a zombie vigilante liberated by The Crow, a Stygian creature who brings unsettled souls back from the dead zone to avenge particularly heinous crimes.

"The Crow," which opened on Friday the 13th, had to do some scratching and kicking of its own to reach theaters a little more than a year after an on-set shooting claimed the life of its 28-year-old star.

Though filming was almost completed, "The Crow" circled in a holding pattern for several months, its director unsure about completion. Its American and foreign distributors were scared off, and the film's release slipped past its August target into the early months of 1994. Once "The Crow" was revived -- it's now distributed by Miramax -- its marketing would prove a challenge since its star was dead and its director isn't talking. Now, "The Crow" has opened to favorable reviews and looks to be taking flight -- with talk of possible sequels.

On March 31, 1993 -- 50 days into a 54-day shoot in Wilmington, N.C. -- Brandon Lee died of internal injuries when the tip of a dummy bullet, accidentally left in the chamber of a .44-magnum pistol, was propelled out of the barrel by a blank charge, entered Lee's abdomen and severed his spine. Lee died 12 hours later at a local hospital, attended by his fiancee, Eliza Hutton. As soon as "The Crow" wrapped, she and Lee were going to Mexico to be wed.

Instead, Brandon Lee was buried in Seattle on April 3, next to the grave of his father, martial arts legend Bruce Lee. In one of a series of interwoven ironies, Bruce Lee had died 20 years earlier of a brain edema during the production of "Game of Death." In that film, Bruce Lee portrayed an actor shot when a gangster replaces fake bullets with real ones.

No such dastardly plot was involved in "The Crow" incident: After a two-month investigation, Wilmington District Attorney Jerry Spivey determined that while several crew members were negligent, no one intended to harm Brandon Lee and that his death "was the result of ignoring basic and well-recognized safety guidelines."

The set shut down after Lee's death, but two months later, Australian director Alex Proyas and much of the cast and crew returned to North Carolina. At the time of the accident, most of "The Crow," budgeted at $15 million, was in the can; only a few minor scenes involving Lee were missing.

"There was never a question about the technical ability to finish the movie," says "The Crow" producer Ed Pressman. "But there was a serious question psychologically, and it really revolved around Proyas. Alex at first did not want to go on with the film. He was destroyed by the accident and so devastated he had no heart to continue. It was only because Eliza, and later the whole cast and crew, appealed to him that he started to consider it."

According to Pressman, "The Crow's" insurance company "said they would pay us what the film cost if we abandoned it, or support us if we went ahead. They gave us a choice. But if Alex had not wanted to continue, I would have chosen to abandon the movie."

Following the accident, Proyas went home to Australia for a month. After his return, says Pressman, "We took the second month to figure out what we were going to do, to work on the script and regroup." By then, Proyas was committed to finishing the movie; instead of being Brandon Lee's breakthrough film, "The Crow" would be completed as a tribute to him.

As Eric Draven said in the original graphic comic, "It's not death if you refuse it."

After his fiancee's death, a severely depressed James O'Barr went into the seminary and then the Marines, where he produced graphics for manuals on hand-to-hand combat. An artist since his troubled childhood, O'Barr also began work on "The Crow."

"Just for myself, as a kind of cathartic thing," O'Barr explains. "I had never even thought about publishing it when I was doing it." In fact, though he began "The Crow" in the early '80s, every major -- and minor -- comics publisher turned it down, made cautious by its theme of cold, unrelenting vengeance and its visually explicit violence. It didn't get into print until 1988.

"The Crow's" transition to the big screen began when Pressman, producer of such films as "Hoffa" and "Bad Lieutenant," signed a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures and began putting together the "Crow" team. To direct, he chose Proyas, who had made his reputation in zippy commercials for Nike and Coca-Cola and artful videos for Sting, INXS and Crowded House. The original script was adapted by cyberpunk author John Shirley from O'Barr's book and later revised by splatterpunk auteur David S. Schow.

"John Shirley did four drafts, but when the film people were giving him suggestions, it tended to drift very far from the original concept," says O'Barr. "At one point, someone even suggested doing it as a musical with Michael Jackson."

The crucial casting, of course, was for the role of Eric Draven. According to O'Barr, Christian Slater "was really hot to play it," but asked for too much money. "And {the producers} thought Brandon could do a much better job -- he was a lot more physical than Christian." Also considered was Texas country-punker Charlie Sexton, whose lean, haunted look was close to O'Barr's original comic depiction, inspired by Iggy Stooge and Bauhaus's Peter Murphy. When Lee did sign on, he made himself gaunt to resemble yet another rocker, Chris Robinson of Black Crowes.

"He lost 20 pounds after getting the role, and he didn't have a lot to lose," says O'Barr. "I could lift him up with one arm, he was so thin. There was absolutely no fat on him whatever. He was just completely streamlined." According to Schow, when "The Crow" was shot, the six-foot Lee weighed 138 pounds.

Up to then, Brandon Lee's career had been shaped by his bloodline. He was offered martial arts roles in films made either in China or the United States -- the same options his father had 25 years before. On television he played the son of Caine on "Kung Fu: The Movie" and Caine's grandson on "Kung Fu: The Next Generation," ironic in that the Caine role was originally written for Bruce Lee -- until Hollywood opted for a Caucasian actor, David Carradine.

Brandon Lee's feature film debut was opposite Dolph Lundgren in "Showdown in Little Tokyo in 1991"; his first starring role in 1992's "Rapid Fire." But "The Crow," despite its violence, did not require any martial arts work and actually melded several genres -- horror, supernatural, mystery and romance.

"This is the very first time Brandon got to act," says O'Barr, "and he waited his whole life to do that. It's as if he was emerging out of a cocoon, but at a really accelerated pace in his acting abilities. It was almost like 10 years had passed between 'The Crow' and 'Rapid Fire.' "

Filming began on Feb. 1, 1993, on Stage 4 at Carolco Studios, an old cement factory with lingering lime dust. Almost from the start, there were problems -- crew injuries, accidental destruction of property, a winter storm that destroyed a set. According to O'Barr, "the whole film was shot at night." The nonunion crews, he says, "would start filming at 10 o'clock until light came up." The set was cold, claustrophobic, dark and dank.

"It was an arduous film, done in a lot of rain and cold weather," Pressman concedes, "so there was a siege mentality that the hard work and circumstances created. But there was absolutely a tremendous spirit of excitement about the movie, the work they were getting."

In July, Premiere reported that Lee's manager, Jan McCormack, had called Wilmington to complain that "conditions on the set had become subhuman." Later in the same conversation, McCormack added, "You guys are killing Brandon down there."

"I didn't mean it to be prophetic," McCormack told Premiere. McCormack, Proyas, Eliza Hutton and Brandon Lee's mother, Linda Lee Caldwell, have all declined to comment about "The Crow."

Last August, Caldwell filed suit in North Carolina Superior Court against Ed Pressman Film Corp., Proyas, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada and actor Michael Massee, who, in the character of Funboy, pulled the trigger. Caldwell's suit charged negligence in the death of Brandon Lee and sought unspecified punitive and compensatory damages. While district attorney Spivey did not press charges, the filmmakers were fined $77,000 for workplace violations. Caldwell settled out of court in September for an undisclosed sum.

By then, shooting for "The Crow" had been completed, at an additional cost of $8 million.

"The film was pretty much wrapped," says O'Barr. "It wasn't like it was the middle of the film and it needed rewriting and reshooting. When Eliza and Linda Lee said that Brandon was really proud of the film and they thought it would make a lasting tribute, everyone gathered up the courage and came back."

Like about one-third of the crew, O'Barr did not return. "They asked me to come back. I told them no, that I couldn't imagine myself back there without him.

"His stunt double {Imada} was also his best friend," O'Barr adds. "It took a lot of courage to come back and reshoot the {flashback} scene that Brandon was killed in. I can't even imagine the toll that would take on you." Imada declined to be interviewed.

After the investigation, the film of the actual shooting was destroyed. "It was no longer needed for evidence and it's my understanding that was part of the civil settlement," says Spivey. "The family didn't want it to fall into the {wrong} hands."

In the original scene, Lee was shot and pushed backward out a loft window; now, there's no close-up of the firing gun or detonating blood squibs, and the film cuts directly to a falling double. "We wanted to be sensitive to what had happened outside the boundaries of the film frame," says David Schow. "Given the reality that it's leaning up against, that just wouldn't play."

Still, the Motion Picture Association of America rated "The Crow" NC-17 four times before enough cuts were made to get its current R rating. A number of visual shocks were streamlined or softened. One supernatural character, Skull Cowboy (horror genre favorite Michael Berryman), was totally eliminated, his explanatory role replaced by voice-overs that now book-end the film with testimonials to the power of love and memory.

"Some scenes had to be phrased differently to accommodate the sort of shots we had," says Schow. Several roles were built up, including Ernie Hudson as a sympathetic detective and Rochelle Davis as a 10-year-old girl who becomes Draven's ally. But the relationship between Draven and his fiancee (Sofia Shinas) remains unexplored; those scenes were among the few involving Lee that had not yet been shot when Lee was killed.

Some scenes became silent montages underscored by Graeme Revell's moody score or goth-rock songs by the Cure, Nine Inch Nails and other heavy-mental bands. And Variety reports that Dream Quest Images, a well-known special effects company, used a revolutionary "digital compositing" technique to take existing images of Lee from one scene and put them in others filmed after his death -- a total of seven scenes involving 52 shots.

After the accident, explains Pressman, "there was a real consciousness that we needed to enhance the emotional center of the movie as much as we could. We also eliminated little details -- like images of Eric with bullet holes in his body. That was tough to watch, so we got rid of that."

That may have been Paramount's response too.

"The Crow" was scheduled for release last August. "Once we could not meet the delivery schedule, {Paramount} had the legal right to not take the film and they chose to do that after seeing an early cut," says Pressman. "They were very impressed by Alex's work and very enthusiastic when they left the room, and yet we didn't hear anything for five days. We sat and waited and in the end they said they didn't want to pick it up."

Pressman says he suspects that Paramount, then being courted by both QVC and Viacom, was scared off by public relations paranoia.

It was only three months ago that Miramax finally picked up "The Crow" for distribution. The film is being released under the joint banner of Miramax, known for art films like "The Crying Game," and Dimensions, which mostly handles genre films. After opening in New York and Los Angeles last Wednesday -- an effort to play down the fact it was going nationwide on Friday the 13th -- "The Crow" was in 1,200 theaters, the biggest release in the history of Miramax.

Miramax, which usually courts controversy to generate better box office (as in "The Crying Game" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!") has opted for a different approach here. The press kit for "The Crow" acknowledges Lee's death ("features the extraordinary final performance of Brandon Lee in the title role"), but not where, when or how he was killed. The film's posters are subtle as well. Just Lee's name, a distant shot in which he is backlit by a halo of downcast light, a title logo with eyes peering out of a Rorschach crow and the words: "Believe in angels."

The promotional campaign is the work of Anthony Goldsmith and his Los Angeles design studio, Intralink. "The campaign is trying to be more abstract," he explains. "You're not going to see Brandon with a gun, or any reference to 'legacy' or 'his last movie.' It's trying to look forward ... "

Goldsmith's involvement, like Miramax's, was last-minute: Told late on a Friday that a design was needed for a CD soundtrack cover package due the following Monday, Goldsmith and his staff saw an unfinished, six-track Dolby version of "The Crow," and over the weekend came up with 15 different designs. The stunning Rorschach crow -- with much the same subtle impact of Goldsmith's most famous movie poster image, the "touching fingers" for "E.T." -- led to his getting the whole campaign. He added eyes to the crow for the one-sheet posters that appeared in theaters long before opening day. As Friday the 13th approached, he added the "believe" tag and shaped the movie trailers and the TV and radio ads.

"The surreality of the story in relation to what happened to Brandon is bizarre, mystical, unsettling and strange, as if Houdini came back," says Goldsmith. "But that was always the story. The movie was our inspiration, pure and simple."

Producer Pressman acknowledges that "we can't change history and there's nothing we can do to eliminate people's consciousness about these events. But we don't want to focus on that. We want to focus on the movie, Alex Proyas's visionary talent and the performance of Brandon Lee."

Even O'Barr says that "sometimes I just get totally locked into the story line and I can kind of ignore what happened."

But it's not always so easy. "Other times, I see Brandon and how good he is," says O'Barr, "and it leaves me with an empty, hollow feeling that I won't ever be able to talk to him again, that this is the last thing anyone will see from him."