Warning Sign (1985)Retrospective

In a secret military laboratory operating under the guise of a pesticide manufacturer, there is an outbreak of a virulent bacteria. During routine work a sealed tube is broken, releasing the secret biological weapon. Where upon detecting the release of the agent, one of the plant’s security officers activate “Protocol One,” a procedure sealing all of the workers inside from the outside world and they are left to wait out the deadly effects. A local County Sheriff whose pregnant wife, the security officer, is trapped inside, and with the help of a past employee who is a known alcoholic, must fight through a government agency and the chemically affected workers to find his wife and put a stop to the spread of the lethal weapon. The former employee had started creating an antidote to the weapon, which the sheriff and his wife create and deploy.

Bloom’s story is a bit more complex, Twelve years ago, while a 19-year-old student at the University of California, he happened to sign on as a production assistant on an obscure project directed by an unknown named George Lucas. It was American Graffiti. “I kept an eye on the cars, Bloom recalls with a smile. Now as sole producer, Bloom finally has some wheels of his own, and if a $7 million thriller.

Cinefantastique v15n04 (Oct 1985)2

“A cross between “The China Syndrome (1979)” and “Night of the Living Dead (1968)” said producer Jim Bloom of WARNING SIGN, to be released by 20th Century-Fox on August 23. Written by the filmmaking duo of Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, who last collaborated on DRAGONSLAYER. the story deals with the frightening implications of scientists using gene splicing techniques in an attempt to develop new forms of germ warfare.

While Bloom admits its similarity to many films, he denies that the germ warfare thriller Andromeda Strain deserves a place on that list.

“Although I am a great fan of director Robert Wise, on that project, he made the design an equal star to the actors. I found the treatment to be rather dry and emotionless, Bloom suggests. “In this movie, the laboratory is secondary to what’s happening. The primary concern is what’s happening to the people.”

Like The China Syndrome, Bloom admits in a less lighthearted vein, the possibilities of life mirroring art with extremely hazardous results also exists. That’s one reason he and Barwood seek to label the film as a “high-tech thriller” rather than science fiction. Though Barwood does have a strong background in the sciences, the filmmakers stress that the microbes are not the message.

“Our purpose is not to educate the community about genetic engineering,” Bloom contends. “Our purpose is to make an entertaining movie.

“At the same time, we want to present intelligent subject matter. One of the complaints I have with many horror movies is that you are dealing with rather dull, boring subject matter which makes use of cheap psychological thrills to entertain you.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To keep costs within the budget, interior filming was done at a vacant Junior High School in La Crescenta, California. “We saved quite a bit, because rather than building a lot of sets, we could go in and use existing rooms, walls and staircases, “revealed Bloom. “We built the main Bio Tek containment lab in the school’s gym. It all worked out very well.” Money was also saved by casting the film without expensive star names. Instead, actors with solid dramatic backgrounds were chosen. “We didn’t want star names for this picture,” said Bloom. “It’s supposed to be real, a story that could happen to anyone, and very often a star can detract from that.”

Set decorator Mickey Michaels. “Every piece is real. Even the government was drooling over this equipment.” Michaels was brought onto the project by production designer Heary Bumstead primarily due to Michaels’ connections with private sector laboratories dealing in this exclusive brand of research. “I told the companies, ‘I can’t promise about the acting or story, but all the equipment will work.” Michaels quips. “You have to make it real to make the unreal work.

Major (Yaphet Kotto) Connolly is not a bad guy.” Bloom says. “He’s sacrificing a few to save many, the same way firemen contain a fire burning out of control.” – Jim Bloom

Bumstead, with 47 years of motion pictures behind him, has worked on four Alfred Hitchcock films (gamering an Oscar nomination for Vertigo) and with George Roy Hill on Slaughterhouse Five. Of this latest venture, he says, “I don’t think Mickey Michaels will ever forgive me for what I’ve put him through on this film, but his connections have made a real difference.”

One reason that Bumstead and Michaels could design the film from today’s company stockrooms and drawing boards, Bloom notes, is that Barwood and Robbins extracted the story from today’s headlines.


“This is really not a science-fiction movie, Bloom says. “It’s really a fiction piece, based on things which are very real right now. The element of science fiction is that we’re dealing in a high-tech field about which the public knows very little.

“Hal Barwood and I are both true fans of genetic engineering. I believe that the 20th century will be remembered for gene splicing-nor computers or nuclear energy.

“In fact, we are dealing with something that, in some ways, is far more terrifying than atomic weaponry-cloning toxins, which are essentially proteins, into easily catchable bacteria like E. coli. Once you start this process, it’s very difficult to create an anti-toxin. That’s what makes it so dangerous: you can not just push a button.”

Nevertheless, Bloom maintains, “We are not looking to present genetic engineering in a bad light. A hundred years from now, when people look back on this period, they’ll see it as the seed point of the genetic revolution.”

The seed point for the film, however, came when Barwood and Robbins, while researching the subject matter, discovered some data-circa World War I-on the Borna virus. “It happened in Germany, Bloom explains. “The Borna virus was very rare, and specific to horses and animals. The horses that became infected all went mad and began attacking each other the virus affects the brain’s rage center.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“That idea, coupled with the concept of developing a particular toxin for germ warfare, was the seed for this project.”

Germ Chills In the film, those within BioTek begin to go mad once they have contracted the virus, menacing cach other and the strangely immune Quinlan. A one-time history classroom displays a remnant of their handiwork, with one door chopped to pieces by an axe and the fake glass in the other shattered.

“It’s quite nice,” observes special effects supervisor Kevin Pike, who oversaw the physical effects on Starfighter thankless job since Digital Productions’ computer graphics got all the ink. “At least there’s no Digital to come in and overshadow all of our stuff,” he smiles. “There are no real major effects on this movie, but many little things.”

“I have less budget on this film than I’ve had in many, many years, production designer Bumstead acknowledges. It’s a challenge. When I heard the budget, I said, “We must find a school,’ so here we are.”

Zomble Thrills The idea of germ warfare recalls a number of films, as does the concept of dangerously enraged virus-afflicted, zombie-like humans. Harmless ultra-violet lights have been developed that, when shone into the eyes of actors wearing special contact lenses, will create an eerie purple glow. The grotesque sores will also glow, set decorator Michaels reveals.

The film has had two previews, and according to Bloom, the reaction has been good. “It’s a very esoteric film in some ways,” admitted the producer. “Some people will hear about a movie where people are getting sick inside of a gene-splicing laboratory, and won’t go near it, so it doesn’t have a broad general appeal.” That fact, combined with the change in management at Fox since the film was made. could mean an uphill struggle to get the film to its intended audience. – Jim Bloom

Warning Sign (1985) Main Theme: Biotek  Craig Safan

Directed Hal Barwood
Produced Hal Barwood Jim Bloom
Written by     Hal Barwood Matthew Robbins

Music Craig Safan
Cinematography  Dean Cundey

Sam Waterston as Cal Morse
Kathleen Quinlan as Joanie Morse
Yaphet Kotto as Major Connolly
Jeffrey DeMunn as Dr. Dan Fairchild
Richard Dysart as Dr. Nielsen
W. Bailey as Tom Schmidt
Jerry Hardin as Vic Flint
Rick Rossovich as Bob

Cinefantastique v15n04

One thought on “Warning Sign (1985)Retrospective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s