Warning Sign (1985)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: March 26th 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Even as the Cold War trudged into the 80s, Hollywood was not content to let it slip away unexploited. What were they going to do: not prey on an entire new generationís fears of atomic annihilation? In many ways, the decade closed the loop, as filmmakers weaned on the earliest Cold War horrors cultivated the next crop of nightmares with the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, Invaders From Mars, and The Blob, all of which are vital dispatches from the era. And then thereís Warning Sign, a (rightfully) obscure effort from the mid-80s thatís decidedly less crucial. Despite its status as an original title, this one feels like more of a half-hearted retread, almost as if everyone were going through the motions of Cold War paranoia, all while checking their watches, effectively trying to run out the clock on the whole deal. This is the Cold War refracted through a prism of jaded desensitization: yeah, thereís technically a war on, but who says we have to be worked up about it?
Co-writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbinsóboth of whom worked alongside Spielberg for a spell during the 70sóat least attempt to capitalize on a new strain of warfare. Since nukes were, like, totally last decade by this point, Warning Sign turns its attention to biological weapons, here cooked up under the guise of a rural pesticide complex. When one of the more hazardous chemicals breaks containment, the entire facility is put on lock down as shady government representatives (headed by Yaphet Kotto) descend upon the place, leaving everyman sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston) and rogue employee Dan Fairchild (Jeffrey DeMunn) as the only upstanding men willing to discover the truth about whatís lurking within Biotek.
In short: itís a familiar routine of paranoia and chemical-induced madness. Leftover scraps of 70s pessimism guide Warning Sign, a film wherein government agencies and a corporate conglomerate represent the true foils to good, decent dudes from Utah just trying to topple the system, man. Essentially The Crazies without Romeroís sharp cynicism and manic energy, it essentially boasts a claustrophobic horror starter kit: plenty of shots of dimly lit and overly septic industrial corridors, an assortment of sweaty, high-strung captives, and plenty of distrust to go around.
Needless to say, some of these folks seize this as an opportunity to act like complete, raving assholes to each other. One group is convinced theyíre not actually contaminated, going so far as to terrorize the poor security guard (Kathleen Quinlan) tasked with maintaining the quarantine. Kottoís government agent lords over the proceedings, shiftily doing everything he can to keep our two heroes from entering the building and chiding them for being so naÔve. The Soviets certainly arenít living up to their end of international weapons treaties, so why should we? For the umpteenth time, a potentially apocalyptic nightmare scenario leads us to the inevitable conclusion that Man is the Real Monster (and in this case, literally men, what with all the casual workplace harassment that unfolds during the early-going).
Which is not to say Warning Sign doesnít deliver a modicum of the stuff you might expect to find when youíre dealing with hazardous chemical spills. Unfortunately, the victims here donít melt into complete mutants; rather, they grow some slightly disgusting boils and become infected with rage. The film is at its best when this horde takes up arms and causes some slightly gory mayhem. Itís just too bad that such instances are both few and far between and unfold a little bit too late in the game. Warning Sign always feels like itís trying to split the difference between being a genuinely harrowing paranoid thriller and z-grade schlock. And, as is often the case, splitting that difference simply results in a film that simply futzes around in the middle of the road, unable to truly commit to being great.
Waiting in vain for a severed head or two leaves you searching for charms elsewhere, and Warning Sign hopes its two ruggedly handsome good old boys will provide it. Itís not a bad bet: Waterston is ideally dignified yet righteous in his defiance of the governmentís orders. Heís going in there to rescue his wife, damnit, even if it means becoming infected himself. DeMunn matches his co-starís fierce conviction with blasť cynicism; perpetually too cool for school, he always threatens to become the cool teacher who sits I his chair backwards in a desperate attempt to be cool. I mean, my dude makes two quips about zucchini pancakes and itís treated as the height of wit.
Those quips are a decent reflection of the terminally amiable Warning Sign; despite exploiting some very potent anxieties, it winds up being a vaguely comforting validation of American grit and perseverance. Never mind that both this corporation and the government prioritize their conspiracy over human lifeóallís well that endís well so long as you have a couple of dudes willing to stand up to them. Even Kottoís menacing agentówho actually disappears for so long down the stretch that you forget heís even thereóhas to tip his cap to them on his way out of town.
That he gets off scot-free isnít even supposed to be disturbing; rather, itís just a matter of course as Warning Sign ties everything up in a nice bow. An early aside involving a quarantined employee pledging her loyalty to Biotek despite the outbreak almost feels like a glimmer of satire, but even itís eventually played straight during a rare bummer note during the climax; itís almost like someone decided they needed something gloomy in order to salvage some measure of gravitas. It might work if DeMunn didnít follow it up with one of his jokes about zucchini pancakes right before the film shuffles us off to the end credits: ďNothing to see here,Ē it assures you. Honestly, itís hard to disagree.
After spending more than a decade stuck on DVD, Warning Sign finally makes the leap to Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory. Theyíve done a typically fine job of upgrading the presentation and producing a couple of new interviews with Barwood and producer Jim Bloom that run about an hour long in total. Barwoodís previously recorded audio commentary also makes the leap alongside a trailer, a TV spot, and a still gallery. A reversible also gives you a chance to display the fun teaser art that didnít promise much beyond a title, a tagline, and a biohazard sign. By the standards of those very bare minimum expectations, Warning Sign is a tepid success, and it now has a perfectly fine Blu-ray edition to boot.
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