David Wong, a slacker, recalls confronting a zombie skinhead whom he beheaded one year prior and wonders whether an axe that had its handle and head replaced over time is still the same axe. In the present day, he meets with small time reporter, Arnie Blondestone, to recount the supernatural events that plagued the small, undisclosed city David lives in.
Some time ago, David is at a party with his friend John, with acquaintances Fred Chu, Justin White, along with high school classmate Amy Sullivan, who has an amputated hand. David learns that Amy's dog, Bark Lee, has gone missing after biting Robert Marley, a drug dealer who pretends to be Jamaican. As he leaves the party, David sees Bark next to his car.
A frantic, incoherent John calls Dave, demanding he come over at once. At John's apartment, David finds a syringe containing a black-colored drug, oblivious to a bizarre creature only John can see. John tells David that the drug, "Soy Sauce", given to him by Marley, grants inhuman knowledge when taken, along with dumping the user in alternate dimensions and timestreams, as demonstrated by a past version of John calling present Dave.
As they drive off, David is bitten by the suddenly animate syringe, propelling him through alternate dimensions. Returning to the present, a strange man, Roger North, appears in the backseat, attempting to offer Dave advice on the strange events, but disappears when Dave threatens him.
Detective Lawrence Appleton questions the two at a police station about the party. Appleton reveals that John and White were the only survivors of a drug-fueled afterparty thrown by Robert Marley - everyone else either disappeared, or suffered grisly, bizarre deaths.
In the present, an incredulous Arnie tries to leave, but Dave convinces him to stay after showing him a strange monster.
During questioning, John apparently dies. Despite this, John telekinetically contacts Dave, helping him escape from the police station and a possessed cop, and guides him to Marley's house. Marley's Soy Sauce knock Dave unconcious. He wakes up to see Appleton preparing to burn down the trailer, who tells him John's body disappeared, and that the Soy Sauce is letting in some kind of evil force. Appleton shoots David, who survives by time-traveling and tampering with the round he was shot with. Bark, controlled by John, drives David's car through the wall, allowing him to escape. In his house, David is subdued by a possessed White.
White kidnaps David, Fred, Amy, Bark and John, taking them to an abandoned mall, hoping to use a ghostly door inside to travel to another dimension. John manipulates White into going outside, where Appleton kills him. Appleton then explodes into a swarm of demonic insects, who possess Fred. David reluctantly kills him. Amy opens the ghost door with her phantom limb, allowing John and Dave passage. They meet North and Albert Marconi, a celebrity psychic and exorcist. They have teamed up against Korrok, an eldritch biological supercomputer that has turned into a genocidal god, who uses the Soy Sauce to open up new dimensions to conquer. Marconi gives David and John a LSD-laced nuclear bomb to kill Korrok with.
The two step through a portal to an alternate Earth. Disciples of Korrok greet them as "chosen ones" and present a brutal utilitarian society, where dissenters are horribly maimed by Korrok's monsters. The duo are brought before Korrok, who plans to devour them, absorb their knowledge to conquer their dimension. John tries to activate the bomb, but fumbles. Bark Lee, who followed the two, grabs the bomb and flings himself into Korrok, detonating it and destroying the two of them.
Upon escaping, David and John meet Marconi and learn that Bark was meant to defeat Korrok all along - after biting a Soy Sauce-addled Marley, it linked him to Marconi and North. Amy becomes David's girlfriend. David and John become exorcists and demon hunters, with Marconi's assistance.
In the present, Arnie reluctantly decides to publish the story, despite fears of damaging his career. Dave realizes Arnie is a ghost, noticing inconsistencies in his background - the real Arnie is dead in the trunk, killed by an unknown force. Seeing this, Arnie vanishes.
Later, John and Dave play basketball, and inadvertently wind up in a post-apocalyptic dimension. A paramilitary organization informs them they are chosen ones who will restore the world, but an annoyed John and Dave walk off.Chase Williamson as David Wong
Rob Mayes as John Cheese
Paul Giamatti as Arnie Blondestone
Clancy Brown as Dr. Albert Marconi
Glynn Turman as Detective Appleton
Doug Jones as Roger North
Daniel Roebuck as Largeman
Jimmy Wong as Fred Chu
Kevin Michael Richardson as Korrok (voice)
Angus Scrimm as Father Shellnut
Jonny Weston as Justin White / "Shitload"
Fabianne Therese as Amy Sullivan
Tai Bennett as Robert Marley / Bruce Matthews
Allison Weissman as Shelly Morris
In 2007, Don Coscarelli optioned the film rights to the comedic horror novel John Dies at the End. The novel, written by David Wong, was first published online as a webserial beginning in 2001, then as an edited manuscript in 2004, and then as a paperback edition in 2007. Coscarelli stated, "I was greatly impressed by David Wong's crazed originality and impressive imagination. He's like a mash-up of Douglas Adams and Stephen King, both smart and goofy, scary and funny – it really spoke to me. [It] is as addictive as the 'Soy Sauce' street drug that kicks the plot into gear."
Executive produced by Daniel Carey and Paul Giamatti, with producers Don Coscarelli, Brad Baruh, Andy Meyers, Roman Perez, Aaron Godfred, and Josh Lewin, M3 Alliance, M3 Creative, and Midnight Alliance "secretly" began principal photography in October 2010. This was confirmed after hints posted by Coscarelli on his Twitter page were verified. Filming took place on locations in Southern California. On January 27, 2011, Coscarelli announced on his Twitter page that principal photography had been completed and that the film has entered post-production, for extensive visual FX work. The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2012. Variety reported that the film was produced on a budget of less than seven figures.
Coscarelli told Entertainment Weekly, "I had been reading zombie fiction. So I ordered these books and the Amazon robots sent me this email: 'If you like that, you will love John Dies at the End’. And it listed all these things [about Wong's book]. Literally, when I read the email, I thought, 'This would make a great movie.'"
Giamatti called the novel "an embarrassment of riches" and said: "what's going to be tragic is what's going to have to go, because stuff is going to have to go and [...] it will kill me whatever goes, because you want it all to be in there and you've still got to have this stuffed bag of stuff." He also praised the actors and Coscarelli's choices, stating, "Don cast it brilliantly. The actors were so good."
In August 2012, Magnet Releasing announced that they had acquired the rights to the film. The film premiered to wider audiences via video on demand services on December 27, 2012; however, it was only available in the US. It opened in theaters on January 25, 2013. It was released on DVD on April 2, 2013.
Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 61% of 80 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 5.7/10. The site's consensus states: "Some will find the darkly funny, genre-bending incoherence of John Dies at the End charming; some will feel its zany antics and gore lead to an unsatisfying payoff." On Metacritic the film has a score of 53/100 based on 27 reviews, which indicates "mixed or average reviews".
A. O. Scott of The New York Times called it "a ridiculous, preposterous, sometimes maddening experience, but also kind of a blast." IGN editor Chris Tilly wrote, "The end result is a film that veers all over the place; a dark, hilarious and consistently twisted feature that amuses for long periods, bores in patches, and astounds in others still." Variety's Rob Nelson called it "a thoroughly unpredictable horror-comedy—and an immensely entertaining one, too." Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer rated it 4/5 stars and called it "over-the-top, gross, and funny ... deeply amusing, in the sickest possible way." James Berardinelli rated it 2/4 stars and called it an "interesting failure." Writing at NPR, Scott Tobias said that the film tries too hard to attract a cult following and relies on "calculated insanity". In a highly negative review, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle praised Giamatti's acting and said that it raised the film from "Worst Movie Ever Made" to "One of the Worst of 2013".