Cult Cinema: Warning Sign (1985) - Reviewed

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Before cementing his name as a director of many Lucasfilm related videogame projects including but not limited to Star Wars: Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, filmworker-producer-screenwriter Hal Barwood first began in Hollywood working as a screenwriter for Steven Spielberg’s theatrical film debut The Sugarland Express before moving on provide uncredited rewrites to Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as writing and producing the medieval fantasy epic Dragonslayer.  Having spent a lot of time and effort into the film industry for almost fifteen years, the filmworker decided it was time to mount his own film production in what became his debut, the 1985 manmade viral outbreak thriller Warning Sign.

Predating the likes of Resident Evil or 28 Days Later by decades, the star-studded Warning Sign catches fire almost immediately by opening in a secret military lab under the faux moniker of being a pesticide developer when a biological weapon being developed there is inadvertently set loose.  Joanie Morse (Kathleen Quinlan), alerted to the outbreak, activates “Protocol One” and proceeds to seal the doctors and lab technicians inside the underground military base in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.  Soon the government gets involved with Major Connolly (Yaphet Kotto) overseeing the containment program but when local sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston) learns of his wife’s entrapment in the infected lab, he enlists the help of disgraced drunken Dr. Dan Fairchild (Jeffrey DeMunn) to try and rescue his wife while putting an end to the outbreak.
Co-written by Dragonslayer director Matthew Robbins and co-starring John Carpenter’s The Thing actor Richard Dysart as the doctor who inadvertently unleashes the bioweapon, the film as it turns out was originally entitled Biohazard before poor test screenings prompted a title change.  Though being released to meager critical reception, the film like Kinji Fukusaku’s Virus is among the first of what would soon become a tsunami of like-minded viral outbreak science-fiction thrillers.  The concept of a manmade virus in a lab with no other purpose but to transform the hosts into frothing homicidal maniacs with no control over their insane rages was relatively new and arguably ahead of its time.  A film of this sort debatably may have played better to modern audiences than it did in 1985.

Sonically the film has a perfectly appropriate electronic score that helps to enhance the film’s futuristic science-fiction connotations thanks to The Last Starfighter composer Craig Safan, helping to augment the film’s mechanized cacophony of computer screens and flashing alarm lights.  Stronger still is the film’s cinematography by legendary John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg director of photography Dean Cundey who is a man who needs no introduction.  One of the greatest cinematographers working today, his contribution to Hal Barwood’s one and only feature film directing effort is indelible and if anything elevates the overall quality of the production as a whole.
The cast of characters across the board is great though special attention should go to a very young Jeffrey DeMunn, an eventual mainstay of Frank Darabont pictures including but not limited to The Green Mile and The Mist.  A veteran character actor, he gets to really shine here as an alcoholic paranoid doctor who knows the terrain but doesn’t want to touch the outbreak with a ten-foot cattle prod.  Sam Waterston, Kathleen Quinlan and Yaphet Kotto all give solid performances as strong-minded characters trying to think their way out of this dilemma.  Richard Dysart, the doctor in The Thing, feels right at home in the role of a skilled doctor who accidentally unleashes something liable to turn everyone exposed to it into murderers. 

Despite the pedigree of the cast, the 20th Century Fox production came and went without much noise, panned by critics and largely ignored by filmgoers.  One must take into account the timeframe it was released in when darker edgier thrillers didn’t always go over as well with audiences.  Seen now, it’s kind of a blueprint for the many, many viral or zombified outbreak science-fiction horror thrillers that would come years later.  Incidentally too, the aforementioned Jeffrey DeMunn himself would later prominently star in the hit AMC television series The Walking Dead, making this something of a full circle crossover for the actor.  Ostensibly a B-movie that’s a lot better than most gave it credit for, Warning Sign is a classy good old-fashioned thriller sporting a terrific cast and paving the way for countless cinematic inspirations in the years since.

--Andrew Kotwicki