28 August 2012

Warning Sign

United States - 1985
Director - Hal Barwood
CBS/Fox Video, 1986, VHS
Run Time -1 hour, 39 minutes

With virtually no introduction Warning Sign launches into a near apocalyptic real-world frightmare scenario set in the semi-rural American west. At a time when genetic engineering was still the stuff of science fiction, Warning Sign makes fiction out of science-fact by cashing in on post-Nam distrust of the Federal Government. Opening abruptly with an accident at a bio-engineering facility somewhere, an ensemble cast of second stringers makes this otherwise simplistic bio-terror film worth almost every minute. Later films like Outbreak and even 28 Days Later would use similar elements of disease induced (read “human-induced-disease”) apocalypse to terrify audiences, but neither had the level of contextual paranoia that sustains Warning Sign’s eerie relevance nearly three decades on.

In a small town somewhere in the U.S. it’s the end of the workweek at Biotek, a small government agricultural facility purportedly working on corn research. As the staff are getting ready for a weekend of hoe-downs and tractor-pulls however, the “plant genes” they’ve been working on suddenly turn a number of them into bloodthirsty zombie-like killers. Thus begins the ‘warning sign’ of the title, not with a bang or a whimper but more of a heavy sigh as the a Federal emergency management team shows up to reassure the angry townies that things are going to be just fine…….Just……fine.

Warning Sign is less about the pathology of microbes than papering over the rift in post-Vietnam American society between ‘real’ (small-town) America and the mysterious and deceitful Federal Government. Both are drawn two-dimensionally in Warning Sign, but the symbolism is clear; there is no longer any love (or trust) lost between the two. This is further emphasized by Yaphet Kotto’s role as the head of the Fed and the only significant character of color in the film, further emphasizing the estragement of the Government from the national average.

Cutting a path neatly down the middle of this mini-Culture War is County Sherriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterson) who only wants everyone to play nice. Conjuring up the ghost of good intentions, Cal teams up with his old buddy Dan Fairchild (Jeffery DeMunn,) a disillusioned former chemist at Biotek who believes that science should benefit everyone. Together these rational idealists restore a kind of lukewarm order to their filmic micro-universe by rote reliance on the salvation trope of ‘family’ without addressing any of the broader implications. Because in the land of rhetoric, it’s not the sickness you gotta treat, just the symptoms, right? Twenty-seven years after Warning Sign the American socio-political climate may have changed in timbre but not in tone.

 This nice Polish poster is from Wrongside of the Art where they have a number of other good posters and lobbycards.

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