Warning Sign (1985 movie) review…

Bio-zombies from the 1980s… After the break…

Warning Sign (1985 movie) review…

When a top-secret bio-engineering lab disguised as an agri-science business accidentally contaminates itself, a sheriff and a renegade scientist do whatever it takes to contain it before it can escape the building and destroy all of civilization.

By the time that the year 1985 rolled around, “Direct-to-Video” was becoming ‘a thing’ but it still wasn’t quite as prevalent as people might remember it. Movies were still in the habit of being well-rounded events of entertainment that were “screen-worthy,” capable of entertaining genre fans while not repulsing the casual movie-goer who might have stumbled into the theater because one of their favorite actors was in the production or just because they had a spare 2 hours and change to kill.

Sam Waterston, in his pre-“Law and Order” days, gives us a preview of what is to come as playing a slightly-feistier version of his lawyer character as a sheriff whose wife is trapped inside of a building long thought by the locals to be a business dedicated to agricultural science. Kathleen Quinlan is Waterston’s wife, a security guard attempting to help others all while trying to keep herself alive amidst the ever-growing possibility that she might die. Yaphet Kotto plays the top government response official who, as typical, must be impartial and secretive to the demands of the locals who always want more done and sooner. Jeffrey DeMunn rounds out the cast of major roles as a burnt-out former employee of the lab who is forced to do what he can to diminish the damage.

Despite the age of the film and the mass-market appeal, the film begins fairly well. How the outbreak begins is surprisingly suspenseful and plausible, with a faulty tape-job on a containment suit to blame. Admittedly, some rather stupid decisions must be made along the way for the outbreak to fully blossom but for the most part the set-up is convincing enough.

The initial response to the outbreak is also fairly logical and thought-out. The building is sectioned off. There are some people trapped inside of rooms and some people follow the containment protocol better than others. There’s one person who has a “practical” response to the alarm which feels and plays extremely typical and logical, fixing a pump that may be the reason for the “false” alarm. Up through this part of the film, there really wasn’t a lot to complain about and it was all sort of impressive. For a theatrically-released film in the 1980s, I have to be honest and admit that it captivated my attention (although the relationship set-up between Waterston and Quinlan felt a bit too forced but I can’t really complain too much about that… Again, it was the mid-1980s and those sort of scenes were simply the sign of the times).

Now, had the film been merely a suspense-drama about people trapped in a building, I would have been very impressed and the film would have been able to have kept it’s credibility well intact. As a study of how a real biological accident occurs and the decisions made concerning it’s resolution, the film could have really shined and filled a niche. Yet, unfortunately, the film diverts into being a horror film, with the infected people becoming somewhat aware but still deadly zombie-like villains. Think of them as the more cunning zombies from “The Return of the Living Dead,” the ones who can fool humans into thinking that they’re normal until, of course, they most certainly aren’t.

Unfortunately, the film can’t decide what it wants to be once the government response arrives. It tries to be a little of all things: A little bit horror, a little bit suspense and a little bit action… And, as a result, fails on all counts. While the realization that people infected with the disease are now turning into malevolent beings is a bit suspenseful, it falls flat because not enough attention is being placed on any one story avenue. Yaphet Kotto is given nothing to work with as the top government response official except to look and sound very serious. He has no character arc; It’s not as though he goes from being a “by-the-book” official to someone willing to put his career on the line to do something right or to cover everything up to save his career. You could have given that role to a dinner theater actor and no one would have noticed the difference. I don’t necessarily consider a rather reluctant handshake at the end of the film as any sort of character development.

The same, sadly, could be said of all such characters, who go into the film as they were and leave as they were. Waterston starts out as a laid-back sheriff and… Winds up that way. Quinlan, as the security guard, is given a few excellent choice moments early on, needing to decide if she wants to bend the rules or not in the face of peer pressure. While she is given the most to do in the film, she is quickly relegated to more traditional female roles in these types of movies, either going out of her way to help someone or merely staying out of the way. DeMunn is similarly stuck with a character that ends the way that he begins.

The film must plod through some rather tired conventions for films of this type. The initial government response is predictably ineffectual and, naturally, a bit shady as well. I was surprised that civilians were allowed to be so close to the building for so long; Wouldn’t you think they would have cordoned off the building a lot sooner? Having armed citizens attempt to storm the building much later on was close to farcical in nature, especially given the consequences if the contagion was released beyond the building.

Finally, the ending is pure, cheesy 1980s “happy ending” fluff that feels so forced that you can practically see the last-minute rewrite demanded by studio producers. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a “doom-and-gloom” ending kind-of-guy but I also despise these somewhat inept attempts at putting on a happy face when it just isn’t warranted.

What makes watching the movie so maddening is that, all throughout, you see glimpses of a much better movie underneath if they had only stuck to one type of theme! The employee stuck in a containment bubble for two days because she walked out of the building just moments earlier would have been much more effective if the viewer wasn’t distracted by the silly pseudo-zombie stuff occurring. The pseudo-zombies would have been far more effective if they were actually zombies and not these people with bumps on their faces who occasionally turn violent but who can also speak perfectly coherent sentences. The employees stuck in the cafeteria was a fantastically-wasted opportunity to have a movie in-and-of itself where the lack of information could have led to all sorts of personality conflicts. Instead, the movie merely uses those people as a plot device.

In the end, “Warning Sign” is surprisingly effective for a 1980s movie through the first third of the film but, once the government arrives, turns into a far more conventional and ineffective experience because it tries to be too many things for too many types of people. That’s too bad.


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