Fear of Mortality in ‘She Dies Tomorrow’

By Sara Century

She Dies Tomorrow is one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2020, and it’s no surprise as to why. A film about a contagious feeling of imminent death coincided with the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, lending an unintentionally timely observation on the fear of mortality for many audience members and critics alike. Yet, the film itself is significantly more complicated than that, and its experimental structure and heavy emotional themes defy easy explanation. She Dies Tomorrow does not fall solidly within the lines of the horror genre, but its proximity to real-world feelings of helplessness and despair marks it as a film that exists very much within horror’s canon.

The opening scenes of She Dies Tomorrow find us in the new home of our protagonist Amy. She is surrounded by boxes, intermittently placing phone calls, and leaves a strange message on a friend’s voicemail. She listens to Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor” while drinking and thinking of the past. We soon discover that she is mourning because she has been overtaken by the certainty that she will die tomorrow. Her friend Jane returns her call but doesn’t seem to understand the importance of their conversation. She fills the time with a stress rant about being expected to bring a simple salad to a gathering, which takes on the proportion of a borderline impossible task.

Kate Lyn Sheil as Amy.
Amy and Craig (Kentucker Audley).

This is the sort of melancholy-tinged anxiety that defines the film. Writer, director, and producer Amy Seimetz has noted that the script for She Dies Tomorrow was inspired by her real-life attempts to openly communicate her feelings of anxiety and noting how those conversations seemed to make others anxious as well.* This is reflected in the film’s dialogue in which people experience sudden, unstoppable, existential horror simply via the acknowledgment of impending death. When Jane herself becomes convinced that she, too, will die tomorrow, she wanders into her sister-in-law Susan’s birthday party and unintentionally makes a scene. She is not dressed for the event and interrupts Susan’s willfully vapid conversation with feelings of isolation and despair. Susan becomes angry and refuses to hear her out, going so far as to say she hopes that none of Jane’s genes have been passed on to her child with Jane’s brother Jason. Yet, as the realization dawns on each of them, the characters all begin to understand what Jane meant. They all become certain that they will each die tomorrow.

For her part, Amy is trapped in memories of a recent relationship with a man who had taken her on a trip to the desert. At a loss for what else to do, she returns there, though what exactly has occurred to the man we never truly know. She remembers the highs and lows of their brief, passionate, but troubled affair while attempting to fill her time by doing silly things like driving a dune buggy for the first time and making out with the man who rented it to her. These attempts ultimately fall flat, and she’s left only with her memories.

Jane Adams as Jane and Josh Lucas as Doc.
Tunde Adebimpe as Brian.

Adding to the desolation that Amy experiences, nearly all of the relationships portrayed in the film are contentious in some way. Jane doesn’t listen to Amy at all until it’s much too late. Susan holds Jane’s eccentricities against her. One of the guests at Susan’s birthday party, Tilly, is waiting to leave her boyfriend Brian, who is unable to give her the affection she craves while she strikes him as inherently shallow. Even Amy’s missing lover, the man who first transmitted the contagion to her, is shown to have serious anger issues in flashbacks. Rather than hold onto each other, nearly every character chooses to face their end alone. Amy tries to reach out, but even in her last day on Earth, she struggles to make meaningful connections with others.

Amy attempts to fill her last day alive with trying things she’d never really gotten around to trying before, and those make up a great deal of the film’s running time, but there are key emotional moments with the other characters as well. At Susan’s birthday shindig, Brian and Tilly observe Jane’s confessions about her anxiety, and it infects them just as it does Susan and Jason. Brian and Tilly are the last remaining guests, indicating that they are both delaying the trip home. They leave the party to meander to the hospital where Brian’s ailing father is spending his last days, and Brian finally chooses to (quite literally) pull the plug on him after what he reveals to have been a long, painful, and emotional struggle. He notes that he wishes he’d have done it earlier while Tilly notes that she’d been waiting for his father to die so she could break up with him guilt-free. This bizarre interaction has a surprising level of emotional impact, and we see these two make a strange sort of peace with each other, and themselves.

In the end, what happens, and how it happens, is still a mystery. She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t actually show death, and it doesn’t tell us for sure whether or not these characters die because that doesn’t particularly matter to the trajectory of the story. At its root, this is a tale about grappling with the things you have no control over. Nothing Amy does frees her or makes it easier to accept her end, which can make it relatable to any of us as we attempt to reconcile with our own mortality.

Sources

  • Learn more from this interview with writer, director, and producer Amy Seimetz on how anxiety inspired the script for She Dies Tomorrow:

About

Sara Century is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. She is a writer of short stories, articles about comics and film, and many, many zines. She is also an artist, comic creator, filmmaker, and podcaster, and she used to be a musician. She’s written for SyFy.com, StarTrek.com, Bustle, Gayly Dreadful, and many more. Visit her website at SaraCentury.com. Find Sara’s webcomic with Tana Thornock and her podcast about comics with SE Fleenor. Follow her on Twitter @SaraCentury.

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