She Dies Tomorrow is frightening because it's a sign of our times
In the new existential horror film by Amy Seimetz, anxiety and fear of death spread like a disease. Or a virus.
Photos courtesy of NEON.
“I am going to die tomorrow,” Amy (Kate Lyn Sheill) declares. It’s dark outside when her friend Jane (Jane Adams) finds her in the backyard wearing a sequined gown, sipping on wine and clutching a leaf-blower. Something’s not right. Considering Amy’s history of mental health issues, and the gravity of her claims, Jane doesn’t exactly take her friend’s words seriously—
“No you’re not.”
“Yes I am.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yes I am — it’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay. It just is.”
This back and forth is disconcerting. At the same time, we can’t help but laugh nervously as Amy asserts with unsettling confidence that she’s dying tomorrow. It seems absurd, but the more we think about it, the more we realize there’s really no way of proving her wrong. In a sense, aren’t we all dying?
In She Dies Tomorrow (out August 7, VOD), the second film by writer-director Amy Seimetz, this feeling — that death is right around the corner — literally spreads like a disease. Given these pandemic times, it’s a provocative and timely premise for a horror movie, but She Dies Tomorrow also doubles as a comedy and an existential meditation on life and death. The same inescapable dread that possesses Amy infects Jane, who later transmits it to all those she comes in contact with. It’s an emotional contagion that forces everyone to confront what most of us try to keep in the farthest, out-of-reach corners of our minds.
Though that’s clearly not the case for Seimetz, whose other writing, directing and acting projects are united by this morbid theme. Consider her chilling first feature, Sun Don’t Shine, about an on-the-run couple trying to get rid of a rotting corpse stowed in the trunk of their car. Or her most recent acting gig as a grieving mother facing the undead in last year’s Pet Sematary reboot. “I was a latchkey kid. One day my mom came home late and I remember thinking, ‘Do I call the ambulances?’ I got really obsessed with the fact that one day these people wouldn’t be here, [and] with the idea that things ended,” Seimetz says. “It’s scary, but it also makes your brain deconstruct. [After my dad died] I thought, ‘Who’s next?’ Because it’s not like after his death I’d never have to deal with [death] again. And when does it happen to me?”
As society grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, She Dies Tomorrow and its claustrophobic atmosphere of menace feels like an expression of reality under quarantine -- a reality in which we are forced daily to reckon with uncomfortable truths. These parallels are coincidental, considering the film was completed well before the March free fall. Nevertheless, there’s something deeply resonant about the way everyday behaviors and activities are interrupted by each character’s sudden, ghastly realization that they’re going to die, and how everyone reacts differently — some can embrace death, others crumble. When Jane shows up to her brother Jason’s (Chris Messina) apartment for his wife Susan’s (Katie Aselton) birthday party, she looks deeply disturbed and depressed. Susan’s in the middle of a story about her newfound fascination with dolphin sex, but when Jane blurts out that she’s dying tomorrow, she fills the room with indescribable foreboding. Moments later everyone is consumed by the same terrifying sensation. Seimetz depicts the instant “contamination” as a flurry of colorful lights with warped, droning sound design -- like an insanely powerful acid trip.
“[We drew from research] about near-death experiences,” she says of the visual. “What physiologically happens to your body is like a flood of hormones in your brain. It’s this intense visual show and even sonically, what you’re feeling must sound symphonic. It’s overwhelming but also scary and euphoric and gorgeous and terrifying at the same time.” Seimetz, who says she dabbles in psychedelics on rare occasions, acknowledges the similarities between her fictional death curse and trip-induced freakouts: “There’s something to certain experiences on psychedelics -- [that feeling of] ‘I suddenly understand what life is!’ That feeling you have that everything is so true and real, and then the next day you’re like ‘What was that?’ -- the movie plays with that.”
When Amy first tries to express her feelings of imminent death to Jane, there’s a clear disconnect between the two women that speaks to the difficulties of human communication. “When you’re telling a friend what you’re going through they can listen and nod, but there’s no way for me to transplant how I actually feel onto you. Wouldn’t it be great if we could go from nothing to -- got it! I feel exactly the joy you’re feeling, like a computer?” Seimetz wonders. Given that the characters seem to clash whenever an infected person meets a non-infected one, there’s something strangely peaceful about the moment they arrive at the same grim conclusion. An unhappy couple (Tunde Adebimpe and Jennifer Kim) who were guests at Susan’s party sit in their car wondering why they stayed together for so long. If they’re both dying tomorrow, there’s no point in pretending anymore. Crucially, it’s left ambiguous whether anyone actually ends up dying the next day, but in the brief hours throughout which most of the film takes place, there’s a shared connection between these people that feels as profound as it does surreal.
Knowing that the film’s protagonist, Amy, is named after Seimetz should come as no surprise. She Dies Tomorrow is so clearly a fiercely personal work that touches on everything from anxiety to addiction, toxic relationships to the malaise that comes with failing to live up to society’s expectations. “[It’s] such a kaleidoscope of every part of me,” Seimetz acknowledges. As a psychodrama that deals in the horror of death’s inevitability, the film might recall titles such as Melancholia, It Follows or the Final Destination franchise, yet Seimetz’ touch is one of a kind, not least of all because of the gallows humor underpinning the doom and gloom. As Amy putzes around her house, she browses leather jackets on her laptop and decides that when she dies she wants to be made into one.
“When we were picking out an urn for my father, I’d have these really weird jokes with my sister -- what if we cremated him and made him into fireworks and then had a fireworks show? What if we made him into diamonds? Your brain is trying to honor this person, but it’s also a commercial transaction that you have to pay for, so why not allow her to be made into a leather jacket?” Seimetz grins.
By the time Jane meets Sky (Michelle Rodriguez) in the film’s final act, there’s a glorious and numbing sense of calm that’s like we’ve entered the eye of the storm. Sky’s oddly at peace with her fate, and views it as a natural point in the cycle of life. “I love trees, I’m going to miss them,” she sighs while lounging by the side of the pool, observing the water as it fills with Jane’s blood. Confronting our mortality may send us all spiraling into dark places -- but is that how you actually want to spend your final hours?