I saw this movie on HBO years ago. As time has gone on and I have seen more Science Fiction, horror and zombie movies, I have come to regard this movie as one of the best of all three. Certainly one of the high-points of the 80s Science Fiction entries.
This movie came out at the same time as "The Stuff", but "Warning Sign" is a more refined and seemingly a much higher budget movie. It has a very slick look when compared to "The Stuff". It even looks pretty good when compared to "Aliens".
**********************Spoilers Below************************* The movie starts out as an average workday at BioTek, the Head of Security, Joanie Morse played by Kathleen Quinlan is going through her end of the day checks and talking to her husband, Cal Morse, the town's sheriff and aspiring lawyer played by Sam Waterston as he's on routine patrol. Something goes wrong. She initiates a security protocol. Yaphet Kotto plays Major Connolly who heads up the US response team who arrives in short succession. Townspeople, unaware of the danger begin to form a mob, headed by Vic played by Jerry Hardin (X-Files, Star Trek the Next Generation). Inside, bands of roving scientists, technicians and workers break out of containment areas and infection begins to spread while the infected begin to act irrationally. Several bands of people in the plant attempt different strategies, from holing up to finding a magical antitoxin. G.W. Bailey (Sgt. Rizzo from M*A*S*H* TV Series) plays Tom Schmidt who is trying to administer the antitoxin after overcoming disbelief at the accident, thinking its a mix-up for the first half of the movie. Richard Dysart plays Dr. Neilsen ("The Thing", "The Prophecy"), the head of the research team working on the virus and becomes the most violent infected person, taking charge of a dangerous band of infected people who attempt to hide the accident in infected mind irrational perspective, which involves lots of smashing and trying to infect the uninfected. Cal Morse contacts Dan Fairchild played by Jeffrey DeMunn, a former employee at BioTek for more help to try to get Joanie Morse out when she seems to be uninfected. The government sends in a containment team which is overtaken by Dr. Neilsen's infected team inside the plant and Major Connolly decides to initiate a lock-down to contain the infection and minimize the spread of the infection. Sheriff Morse and Dan Fairchild then break into the plant to attempt to rescue Joanie Morse and find the secret to the spread of the disease. ***************************End of Spoilers***************************
First off, the acting is very good for a movie of this genre. Kathleen Quinlan, Sam Waterston, Jeffrey DeMunn, Richard Dysart, Yaphet Kotto and G.W. Bailey all deserve some recognition for their acting. I like Jerry Hardin's Sci-Fi work, so I mention him, although his role was a little lacking, there wasn't much to grab on to. Hard to make "Irrational Redneck" an Oscar-winning performance.
The director uses lots of modulation in the way the character's speak their lines to add emphasis to the dialog and to allow the audience to distinguish the infected from the uninfected. Kathleen Quinlan, when under extreme stress, at one point drops her western accent and produces a pure New York Brooklyn accent. Since she is from California, it isn't an accident, bad editing or bad acting I don't believe. Its meant to convey her stress. The infected people speak in a melodramatic way which seems cheesy, but on closer inspection is a device the director is using to make the audience aware of the mental stress the infection causes. I would liken Barwood's attempt to Clouzot's analysis of characters in "The Wages of Fear" or "Diabolique", but far less insightful than Clouzot. I fear it may have been lost on most people, though. Perhaps writer/director Barwood tried to do too much for a movie of this type. Maybe "Towering Infernos" can't contain deep, socially-conscious points. The movie stretched out a little too far but it is still great and worth watching at least once.
The movie isn't a full horror movie. I don't think it was meant to be. Its more in the vein of "Andromeda Strain" especially, "The Crazies" and "Quarantine" to a lesser extent. Its more of a science fiction movie with zombie-ish infection. "Warning Sign" tried to accomplish more, achieve a higher level and missed somewhat. For a horror or zombie movie its tame, but the movie doesn't go out of its way to bludgeon you into being afraid. Its not that scary. Its more creepy than scary, but not a common "Vincent Price"-brand of creepy. The movie breaks itself out as a serious movie with an attempt at social commentary (although fictional?), great makeup effects, a great screenplay, a pretty good "Dawn of the Dead"-like electronic background score, but tuned up for the 80s. The entire movie has an air of reality similar to "Andromeda Strain". It feels like it could be an actually happening, everything is just persuasive enough to make sense, there seems to be an understanding of science written into the screenplay which is rare in zombie movies. Too many zombie movies have taken the approach "Don't worry about it, just watch the movie" to the point they slightly insult the intelligence for people who are unable to suspend disbelief. "Warning Sign" dots the 'i's and crosses the 't's. There are points of costume and props that are poorly thought, but they are background material.
I found the ending to be a little mushy and a little too far outside the horror audience to be appreciated. As an adult, I still find it a little crummy, but it works for me ultimately and it provides closure.
Fortunately, Anchor Bay released this title on DVD. Watch this movie, it's carefully constructed screenplay is worth unwinding.
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