Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), the protagonist of She Dies Tomorrow, is not okay. When we first meet her, she seems fine enough—about as fine as any of us are in an era where anxiety and confusion are so prevalent that there’s a term for endlessly scrolling through bad news. She putters around her half-empty house still piled with moving boxes, occasionally stopping to lie on the floor or run her hands over the furniture. She pours herself some wine, picks out a sequin gown, puts it on, and sits down at her laptop to shop online for leather jackets (and, more curiously, cremation urns). It’s not until her friend Jane (Jane Adams) comes by and finds her blankly standing in her backyard holding a leaf blower that we realize how not okay Amy actually is, as she greets her friend with a barely audible, “I was thinking... I could be made into a leather jacket.”
With its claustrophobic spaces and free-floating fear, She Dies Tomorrow is built around an eerily timely theme: existential dread as thought virus. Amy is gripped by the unshakable belief that she will die the next day, and everyone who encounters her becomes similarly convinced after only a few seconds of exposure. One character describes the feeling: “It’s like when you’re in New York City... in the summer, when you look up and there’s air conditioners everywhere, and you just know, ‘One of those is going to pop out and crash down on my head.’” The pandemic here is emotional, as first Jane, then everyone she meets, is visited by a psychedelic onslaught of color, sound, and pummeling flashing light. It’s sort of like being abducted by aliens while high on LSD, and it turns all who see and hear it into hollow shells of doom.
This anxiety spreads inward from the margins of society to its more respectable center, passing from Amy, whose alcoholism has relapsed, to single, unemployed artist Jane to Jane’s more outwardly successful brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and sister-in-law, Susan (Katie Aselton). As the panic escalates, so does the violence of the character’s responses to it. In some ways, She Dies Tomorrow can be seen as a prescient prediction of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in a scene where Jane, clad in flannel pajamas with a bloody bandage wrapped around her wrist, tries to warn Jason, Susan, and their friends Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim) of what’s to come. Susan cracks a joke at Jane’s expense, and everyone laughs. Jane is right, and they don’t take her seriously at all.
But an unwillingness to face unpleasant truths was a part of human nature long before stay-at-home orders came down. Considering director Amy Seimetz completed the film in time to submit it to the (eventually canceled) SXSW film festival in March, these parallels can, much as with the contagion horror of Sea Fever, be safely considered unintentional. It’s also part of human nature to look for patterns where there are none, and these are exactly the types of responses Seimetz is exploring in her film—psychological reflexes from the deepest parts of our animal brains, and how they reveal our true personalities and motivations. This vision of life in the face of impending death carries an apocalyptic weight similar to that of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, overlaid with an unseen supernatural threat that functions a bit like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers by way of It Follows.
She Dies Tomorrow isn’t really a horror movie in any conventional sense, though there is tension inherent in the inevitable rising of the sun the following morning. That being said, Seimetz also plays with bold stylistic touches often seen in horror movies, like dramatic, saturated flashes of rainbow-hued strobe lights and bombastic musical cues that cut off so suddenly that a snort of laughter may involuntarily escape your lips as you watch. But while there are moments when the balloon cathartically pops, the predominant effect is anxiety that builds to numbness, to the point that Michelle Rodriguez intoning about death next to a swimming pool slowly filling with blood seems about right for the situation.
Seimetz funded She Dies Tomorrow with her acting paycheck from the 2019 remake of Pet Sematary, filming in secret with a small crew of collaborators. And it is an emotionally vulnerable piece of work, touching on everything from the pain of experiencing a mental illness that no one around you understands to what it means to waste your life. It’s so personal, in fact, that the screenplay can sometimes neglect to let the audience in on what’s happening, the film losing its way as it wanders through vast expanses of dread in search of an ending. But these are also lost characters, so you’ll have to forgive them if they don’t make sense at times. They’re grappling with a question that none of us will hopefully ever have to answer: If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?