Singer Joe Strummer wrote the song and explained in an interview with Roz Reines in 1982 that the song is about violence in films and the public's desire to see "executions" - be that literally or in terms of a career. "It's about the way we all queue up at the cinema to see someone get killed. These days, the public execution is the celluloid execution. I was examining why I want to go and see these movies," he said.
The cinematic influence is acknowledged in lines such as "stalked through the back lots."
"Death is a Star" uses complex instrumentation which harks back to the experimentation of Sandinista!, featuring guitarist Mick Jones playing 1920s-esque jazz piano and soft Spanish guitar, and drummer Topper Headon uses snare brushes rather than traditional drum sticks. This complexity combined with its stop-start nature and downbeat themes (contrasting with the rest of the Combat Rock LP) meant that the band never played it live.