It’s already been well-established that HBO’s The Last of Us is one of, if not the, best video game adaptations of all time. And if you disagree with that then, well … that’s totally fine. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion! No need to be upset here. Still, the category of “successful video game adaptations to television” is a relatively sparse one, and even the most TLOU-skeptic viewers will have to admit that this story about Joel (Pedro Pascal) shepherding Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across a post-apocalyptic American landscape has a strong a claim to the title.
One aspect of The Last of Us‘s place in the pop culture canon that’s been under-discussed, however, is its positioning among its zombie TV peers. And that might be for one simple reason. No, it’s not because The Walking Dead is a worthy competitor (though I’d be the first to remind you that the AMC show had some moments of brilliance amid all the undead filler). It’s because it’s unclear whether The Last of Us is a zombie show in the first place.
The Last of Us presents a unique case for the zombie fan. The story’s animated human monsters, known as the Infected, look like zombies, shamble like zombies, rot like zombies, and bite like zombies. But does that technically make them zombies? After all, there’s one crucial element missing: they aren’t corpses but rather living human beings whose brains have been taken over by the cordyceps fungi.
The cordyceps fungus enters into its victim’s brains similar to how a “zombie virus” would. It spreads via close contact with the infected, most frequently via a bite. In the case of The Last of Us games, the fungi can also be spread via airborne spores, though that is currently a controversial omission from the show. Once infected, both cordyceps and the zombie virus have a similar outcome: the complete devolution of the subject’s brain to the point where they become lifeless vessels for some other dark motivating force. In the cordyceps case, that is the fungi itself commandeering the brain and turning the subject into an automaton that seeks only to infect more people. In the zombie virus’s case, that is some sort of supernatural condition that turns the afflicted into an unthinking monster, seeking out only flesh to consume.
Crucially, however, individuals infected with the cordyceps fungi do not die, at least not at first. Though the cordyceps may eventually kill them or their body might waste away from natural causes, the Infected can only operate when biologically alive. Post-mortem, the fungus uses the body as an inert breeding ground for spores. When it comes to a zombie infection, quite literally the first step of the process is to die, before coming back as a reanimated corpse. Is that one difference, albeit a large one, enough to dismiss the Infected as not being zombies?
The question of the Infected’s zombie bona fides has bedeviled The Last of Us fans since the game was first released in 2013. The game’s subreddit is rife with many threads debating the topic. The most common answer among Redditors appears to be “no,” but there are plenty of dissenters. Ultimately it seems like an existential conundrum with no concrete answer. And you know what we love to do when we encounter one of those: fly into the discourse with all guns blazing, ready to be supremely confident of our conclusion one way or another.
First, let’s start with the most basic question at play. What, exactly, is a zombie? Not to get all middle school English essay but let’s head to the dictionary.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary‘s primary definition of the word reads:
- a will-less and speechless human (as in voodoo belief and in fictional stories) held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated.
Dictionary.com‘s two primary definitions of the word read:
- (in Vodou) a mute and will-less body, robbed of its soul and given the semblance of life by a supernatural force, usually for manual labor or some evil purpose.
- (in popular culture) an undead creature with a reanimated human body, typically depicted in science fiction or horror stories as contagious to the living by bite and vulnerable only to serious head trauma
Of those three definitions, two of them are clear in indicating that zombies are reanimated corpses. In Dictionary.com’s very first definition, however, corpses are not mentioned in favor of “a mute and will-less body.” While Dictionary.com appears to be leaving room in its interpretation of the word for creatures just like The Last of Us‘s Infected, it’s probably not accurate to do so. Though the definition invokes the religious tradition known as Haitian Vodou (sometimes known in the U.S. as “voodoo”), zombies in Haitian Vodou are indeed reanimated corpses.
What Dictionary.com may be referring to, however, is the twilight period in zombie media between the West’s discovery of the creature of Haitian folklore and the release of George Romero’s genre-defining Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Films in this timeframe frequently depicted zombies as the unthinking, yet living, thralls of powerful magicians. Examples include White Zombie (1932) and King of the Zombies (1941). That type of “zombie” didn’t come to an immediate end with the arrival of Romero either. There are a handful of modern examples of zombie stories in which the zombies in question are technically alive, most prominently: Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).
All of this is to say that the term zombie, like virtually everything else, is a negotiable and mutable thing. It can be bent and modified from story to story as needed.
Still, the whole point of this exercise is to determine The Last of Us Infected’s zombie status once and for all. To that end, we will officially declare that: no, the Infected are not zombies. And that’s for one simple reason: neither the game nor the TV show refers to them as such. In fact, game creator and show co-creator Neil Druckmann has clarified that they are not zombies.
Now couldn’t we have just posted that Twitter embed at the top and called it a day? Yes, we could have. But then we wouldn’t have gone on this marvelous zombie adventure together.
New episodes of The Last of Us premiere Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.