Movie Review: Resurrect Dead – The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Justin stood in the street, staring down at the letters embedded in the asphalt:


Toynbee tile photographed a block or so from t...

Toynbee tile photographed a block or so from the White House by User:Erifnam in 2002. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Justin had seen these tiles in the streets all over the northern United States, from Kansas City to New York. Years earlier, he had travelled to Buenos Aires, Chili to see a tile there, on a busy intersection. There is even one at the entry to the Holland Tunnel. They are called Toynbee Tiles. They always say the same thing, along with a sidebar of smaller text that is often unique, and they are always made of letters crudely cut from plastic and embedded into the asphalt of streets. Documenting Toynbee Tiles has been a passion of Justin’s for over nine years, ever since he saw one for the first time in his home town of Philadelphia. Along with two friends, he began a relentless investigation to understand the purpose behind the tiles and the person or people responsible.

Attempting to decipher the text, they assume that Toynbee Idea might be a reference to the radical writings of British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, who conceived that reanimation of dead cells might be scientifically possible. Kubrick’s 2001 likely refers to the 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and co-written with novelist Arthur C. Clark. The film theorizes the next step in human evolution would be an extraterrestrial encounter near Jupiter, resulting in the evolution, resurrection or something, of the character, David Bowman. Resurrect Dead On Planet Jupiter seems to be an extrapolation of the first two lines – that the dead will be resurrected on Jupiter, or something.

Justin didn’t buy into this, of course, but he was fascinated at the effort and tenacity that went into placing these tiles on the streets of major metropolitan cities. It seems that, while everyone noticed the tiles, no one had ever seen them being installed. How could that be?

The sidebars of text were what really interested Justin, because they were different on each tile.

One read, “Lay tile alone as hellions join up en masse and give you beatings.” Another said, “You must make clue tiles!! You!! As media user.” Still another said, “Only if the media dies can I live.”

Most people dismissed the tiles as sidewalk art or even vandalism, but not Justin. The paranoid ramblings of the sidebars whet his appetite to understand why someone would go to such extremes to get their message out, and why do it with street tiles?

This is the premise of the 2011 documentary film – Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles by Jon Foy, which follows the informal investigation of Justin Duerr and his associates, spanning years as they attempt to unravel the meaning and source of this strange message.

First, let me say that I love documentaries that are not narrated; that is to say that there is no voiceover, telling us what to think of the information being presented. Yes, you hear Justin or others talking throughout the show, but you are left to interpret it for yourself. And that’s the fantastic thing about this movie – it’s not really about the weird Toynbee Tiles. It’s about Justin Duerr and his unrelenting pursuit to learn who is putting them on busy intersections of metropolitan cities for over a decade, and why.

The movie was filmed over five years’ time; another testament of obsession as Justin Duerr who is following the mysterious Toynbee Tiler, and Jon Foy follows Justin. As I watched the movie, I realized that I, too, was in the conga line behind them.

And why not? It’s fascinating and well presented.  The key points have been distilled and polished, leading to a speculative but still satisfying conclusion, for me anyway. A good documentary will come to a some kind of conclusion and not just be a series of events and then – the end.

The bottom line on this movie is that it delivers. It delivers a weird, somewhat disturbing mystery around the tiles and the message they contain. It delivers a likable, intelligent and obsessive investigator in Justin Duerr, and it sums up the whole thing in 86 minutes that I did not immediately wish I had back after watching the movie. That’s not something I can say about watching recent documentaries by Michael Moore.

This movie is currently on Netflix and I found it entirely by accident. It’s obscure, off-beat and fantastic. If you are going to watch TV, you will be hard-pressed to find anything more interesting, provoking and weird than Jon Foy’s Resurrect Dead.

Highly recommended.

imdb on Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
Wikipedia on Toynbee Tiles
Bing search on images of Toynbee Tiles


2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Resurrect Dead – The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

  1. Hey, Mitch, just yesterday, I was telling my sister about your piece of flash based on this strange story – in between listening to blues music and drinking silly amounts of Guinness!


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