By now, most of us are well acquainted with anxiety. Maybe your thing is checking daily COVID-19 cases in your area, or hoarding toilet paper, or taking your temperature every time you get an itch in your throat, or doomscrolling. Maybe you often catch yourself thinking about death. The knot in your stomach starts to tighten, your pulse quickens. I’m okay. I’m okay.
If I had to explain to an enviably pacific alien what precisely this feels like, I’d show them Amy Seimetz’s sophomore feature, She Dies Tomorrow. Though it was written and shot before the coronavirus pandemic, the film captures — with an eerie exactness — the existential burden of being creatures capable of conceiving of our own mortality, something many of us are doing a lot right now. But even as the film evokes the pandemic with its what-if-you-knew-you-were-going-to-die-tomorrow premise, it offers a warning against having a tunnel vision of dread.
Seimetz is an actress as well as a director, and she reportedly funded She Dies Tomorrow with her paycheck from 2019’s Pet Sematary. Though it’s immediately clear from watching She Dies Tomorrow that the film is a personal project (not least because the main character, played by the consistently great Kate Lyn Sheil, is named Amy), Seimetz has confirmed as much in interviews, identifying how, when she spoke about her anxieties, they seemed to spread to her friends. In She Dies Tomorrow, this is literal: Amy knows with absolute certainty that she will not live beyond the next day. When Amy explains her morbid epiphany to her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), it seems like she is just in a relapse of alcoholism — until Jane realizes, with certainty, that she too is going to die the next day. Soon it becomes clear that the knowledge of impending doom spreads like a virus from person to person.
There is an entire category of mostly terrible films that play with this same concept. What would you do if you only had a short time left to live? these movies ask, often delivering an uplifting message about embracing the moment and doing something intentional with your one wild and precious life. She Dies Tomorrow is not that. In the film, each character is debilitated by the revelation in a way that feels more authentic: Amy spirals back into drinking, Jane wanders around zombie-like in her pajamas, a couple break up, parents hug their child.
She Dies Tomorrow feels precise to the pandemic with this establishment of an ever-present foreboding and unshakable obsession with mortality, so much so that it’s disorienting to remember it preceded the word “COVID-19.” Almost every review of the film mentions its uncanny prescience — “what perhaps proves eeriest about She Dies Tomorrow is the intrinsic sense the film seems to make right now,” observed Vanity Fair — both for its themes of anxiety, and for the sense that life (our own, and our loved ones’) is something that could be snuffed out at any moment. “You just know something really bad is going to happen,” Jane tries to tell a doctor, who is then infected by the same obsession. And really, who hasn’t felt that looming despair recently?
Seimetz doesn’t quite land on an solution for coping with our mortality. “I didn’t want the film to be like, carpe diem,” she told Sloan Science and Film. “I’m terrible at [giving] advice and I wasn’t about to make a movie that’s like, go live your life to the fullest! I don’t even know if that’s the answer.” But She Dies Tomorrow does manage to function as a warning. The single-mindedness of each character’s dawning realization is what has earned the film the tentative categorization of a horror movie (it’s “one of the scariest films I’ve seen in a long white,” wrote Vulture‘s critic, Bilge Ebiri). Thinking about our own fleeting existence condemns us to stagnation; most of the characters “infected” by the knowledge drift helplessly from place to place, or don’t even leave their homes. Only Amy actually takes off with a purpose, searching for closure, and possibly an explanation, that doesn’t become clear until the end of the movie.
But one scene has particularly stuck with me: A husband breaks from despairing about mortality with his wife to make a cup of tea. It’s a shatteringly human moment, a reminder that dread is unsustainable. Perhaps there is a sort of answer in that — while inadvertently reminding us of our pandemic anxieties, Seimetz also sympathizes that it’s impossible to live this way at all times. Accepting our fears and anxieties might be the only way to move forward, to release ourselves from our collective paralysis. “[Beforehand] I caught myself having anxiety about this other thing and saying to myself, ‘I’m okay, I’m okay,'” Seimetz recounted to Film Comment. “I realized that if I was okay, I wouldn’t be saying it out loud to myself. It’s okay to accept the fear if I’m really not okay. Everyone’s experiencing this collective ‘I’m okay, I’m not okay.'”
She Dies Tomorrow invites the viewer to own up to their own existential dread. After all, one of the cemented facts of existence is that if we don’t die tomorrow, it’ll be the next day or the next or the next. It’s both paralyzingly incomprehensible, as well as the most mundane truth in the world. The not-okay/okay modulation might be tipped in our minds toward anticipating catastrophe at the moment, but it’s always swinging from one extreme to the other. It’s how we use the moments between the extremes that interests Seimetz. As she describes it: “We already went crazy and we’re still here — now what do we do?”
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