'She Dies Tomorrow' is latest in a string of films that find humans battling contagion

Julie Hinds
Detroit Free Press
Kate Sheil in "She Dies Tomorrow" by Amy Seimetz.

Fear and uncertainty are as familiar in 2020 as Zoom meetings and social distancing. Still, you have to stay positive, establish a healthy routine and find ways to cope with what can feel like existential dread.

That's what makes an early scene from "She Dies Tomorrow," available on streaming platforms and video on demand, so scary. During a phone call, a friend offers some advice to a young woman who's feeling a sense of claustrophobic doom: "Go for a walk, or why don't you try watching a movie?"

Both are common stress relievers for life in the COVID-19 pandemic. But be aware that watching "She Dies Tomorrow" won't distract you from what's happening. The gripping indie is about facing your dread when fearfulness itself becomes contagious.

For at least six months now, movies have been providing coronavirus catharsis. Early this year, "Contagion" (2011), a taut drama starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne, reached the hot zone of rental popularity with its fact-based vision of what would happen if a virus spread across the world and claimed millions of lives.

Just recently, "Host" arrived on the streaming site Shudder. The horror film, shot entirely on Zoom, takes place as a bunch of friends in lockdown gather online for a seance that unleashes some serious nastiness. The concept plays off of quarantine tensions and brings new meaning to experiencing a virtual meeting from hell.

"She Dies Tomorrow," written and directed by Amy Steimetz, explores timeless themes that just happen to correspond to the constant worry that has become 2020's mood board. The story centers on Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who guzzles white wine after becoming convinced that she will die tomorrow.

Amy's fear doesn't appear to be an offshoot of depression. She caught it from another person, and she spreads it to anyone she physically encounters. Super creepy and superbly unresolved, Steimetz's new movie is a meditation on facing mortality that contains surprising splashes of dark humor. For instance, when Amy keeps lifting the needle of her record player to listen over and over to Mozart's gloomy "Requiem," it's a pretty clear example of how not to wallow in misery. If time is running short, why not put on some vintage Go-Go's or Prince's "1999"?

"She Dies Tomorrow" is a moody, intense portrait of trapped characters — including a solitary scientist played by wonderful Jane Adams (HBO's "Hung") — who must wrestle with what it means to be approaching their final day. Should they drop the limits of polite behavior and start saying and doing things they otherwise would self-censor? Is that a good choice? It's certainly an honest one.

With the real-life pandemic continuing to surge and no imminent end to it in sight, no wonder life is paralleling scary movies. In "Bird Box" (2018), wearing a mask (in this case, a blindfold) is the only weapon against mysterious creatures that provoke lethal madness with a single glimpse. There's even a relevant plot point over whether masks are necessary or just a response to a mass hysteria. But rest assured that Sandra Bullock's character stays masked and serves as the Dr. Fauci of the "Bird Box" universe.

There also are echoes of 2020 in "Children of Men" (2006), a classic dystopian film from director Alfonso Cuaron that sends a strong told-you-so message about the costs of climate change and systemic inequality. Its scenario of an infertility pandemic, coupled with huge migrations of refugees, is a nightmarish take on a future with worsening income inequality, health care disparities and brutalization of asylum seekers. Even the formidable Clive Owen has a tough time shouldering this many problems at once.

"World War Z" (2013) is the best recent spin on a zombie disaster. Its premise is that humans gain incredible speed once they're infected with a zombie bug, making any effort to socially distance from their biting range extremely difficult. Yet "World War Z" is an oddly comforting action thriller, maybe because it offers Brad Pitt racing to the rescue (and he actually played Fauci on "Saturday Night Live"). Pitt doesn't survey the global crisis and say, "It is what it is." He's relentless in the search for a vaccine, brushing off a plane crash as if it were a flat tire.

For the ultimate in pandemic-fueled pandemonium, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (both the 1956 original and a 1978 remake) reveals the hazards of trying to stay safe while others are downplaying a crisis. An allegory for the 1950s Red Scare, it imagines a plague of seed pods arriving from outer space. The pods grow exact copies of humans, only these doubles lack free will and emotions. When one man (Kevin McCarthy in the '56 version, Donald Sutherland in '78) tries to expose the truth of what's happening, he's essentially deemed fake news.

Scary movies have always been a place to work out some of our deepest fears — even for filmmakers. In the production notes for "She Dies Tomorrow," Seimitz described the origin of the story. "I was dealing with my own personal anxiety and found I was spreading my panic to other people by talking about it perhaps too excessively — while simultaneously watching a ton of news and watching mass anxiety spreading on the right and left politically," she said. "All this while remembering losing my father and many friends, that we all die at some point. We don't know what to do but keep living, realizing the absurdity and tragedy that with life comes death."

Seimetz notes that the characters in her latest film keep saying that everyone is going to die because they no longer can avoid that fact. "It's just most of the time, you can push that truth aside and be as shallow or oblivious as you want to be."

Terrifying stuff, right? Or maybe a timeless reminder that time is precious. If "She Dies Tomorrow" feels like 2020 condensed into one script, well, there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than with a smart, thought-provoking movie.