Feb 1, 2023
Why Our Love for Zombie Apocalypse Shows Just Won’t Die
(Bloomberg) -- When Frank falls through a trapdoor into one of the pits hidden around Bill’s compound in the brilliant third episode of The Last of Us, he can’t imagine how his life is about to change. Seven years into the zombie apocalypse, he’s on the run and knows better than to expect any humanity from the few paranoid survivors he encounters. But Bill is not your average doomsday prepper. He’s also a man “who knows to pair rabbit with a Beaujolais.”
In this beautifully crafted episode, The Last of Us rises to the TV heights of HBO’s best prestige dramas. Murray Bartlett (Frank) and Nick Offerman (Bill) are spellbinding as two grizzled survivors who fumble their way into intimacy and build an unlikely partnership at the end of the world. Yet their story is only a striking sidebar to the main plot. The Last of Us has so far been exactly what you’d expect in a zombie action show—or a John Ford movie, for that matter. Gruff, emotionally shut-down Joel (Pedro Pascal), an aging smuggler-assassin, must get the mysterious and mouthy 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the country, protecting her from undead hordes and other ruthless killers. Will they save each other along the way to saving the world?
Working with Emmy-winning writer and director Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), Neil Druckmann has adapted his hit video game into a hit TV show. Given the game’s enormous, passionate fanbase, it made obvious commercial sense for HBO, now enjoying its biggest non-Game of Thrones success in a decade.
The joystick DNA is unmistakable. Joel and Ellie have to keep leveling up as they cross a dystopian American hellscape. Pascal and Ramsey are both terrific as they dodge the undead, the police, the feds, freeway pileups—even a crashing airliner—and climb up and over the vine-tangled remains of dilapidated hotels and museums. It’s plotting by PlayStation: We ride along as they do the same thing over and over and over, and gleefully return to see it all happen again.
Pausing to flesh out Bill and Frank’s story so early in the season is a huge and brilliant departure. The emotional punch from this lovely, tragic tangent lands perfectly, raising the stakes when we return to Joel and Ellie. The lovers’ lessons—fight for each other, build something real for each other—are not lost on the found father and daughter.
The show just shouldn’t be this good. The zombie apocalypse is well-trodden territory.
What explains this—our love affair with zombies? Since George Romero released his horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead in 1968, we’ve seen hundreds of zombie films, shows, novels, comics, and video games. In 2022, after 11 seasons, the AMC juggernaut The Walking Dead finally, um, died, but its producers have just spent $650 million on Dead City, the first of several planned sequels. You’d think Covid-19 would have quelled our appetite for stories about apocalyptic pandemics. Nope. We just can’t get enough death—and undeath.
Before Romero, revenants were the stuff of voodoo and religious superstition, showing up in folklore as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. (Indeed, resurrection has featured prominently in one of the world’s major religions for a few thousand years.) But we owe Night of the Living Dead for reanimating the trope for secular society. Now it’s science that opens the grave: radiation, biological weapons, botched government experiments, viruses and so on. The Last of Us puts a relatively fresh spin on it, giving us a devious parasitic fungus that commandeers the brains of its victims. (Technically, they’re not actually dead, just taken over and eventually evolved.) The premise is especially terrifying because it’s a real thing: Ophiocordyceps unilateralis turns ants into zombies in the tropics. Fun!
The fungus may be new, but the end result is the same: Creepy almost-humans shamble across the horizon in hungry herds, lurching out of dark corners and snapping their clacking jaws. Since they’re an enemy without motive, these creatures on their own aren’t so satisfying from a dramaturgical perspective. And in The Last of Us, as in every zombie plot, they aren’t the real villain. The bad guy is always just another version of the hero—some other survivor who is even more desperate and ruthless.
That’s the key. As farfetched as it is, the zombie apocalypse supplies a far more realistic action adventure than, say, a Marvel movie, because we are right in the middle of it. The heroes are simple Everymen and Everywomen who find themselves in a nightmare. They learn to do whatever it takes—to draw the blood of the living to help them survive the dead. Watching, we wonder: Would we have what it takes to pull the trigger?
The modern zombie narrative is always aiming higher than genre thrills. Night of the Living Dead ended with a disturbing picture of American racism: The black hero (Duane Jones), survives his long night with a horde of ravenous corpses, but gets murdered by the police when they finally arrive to save the day. The Walking Dead likewise offered a progressive critique of the culture—almost every season introduced a new sadistic warlord, a fresh fascist that the marvelously diverse cast had to work together to defeat.
The Last of Us picks up where The Walking Dead left off (even borrowing its title font) in attempting to straddle this political divide. In Episode 3, when Joel expresses surprise that Ellie doesn’t understand some recent history, she replies that school doesn’t teach us “how our sh---y government failed to prevent a pandemic.” That ought to delight any viewer still angry about the Trump administration’s handling of Covid. But at the end of the hour, surveying Bill’s hidden cache of handguns, rifles and semiautomatic weapons, the girl can’t hide her delight. And this may leave that same viewer feeling queasy.
Alas, you can’t do this sort of Wild West tale without guns. (You couldn’t ask for a better rationale for the Second Amendment than a zombie apocalypse.) Each episode invariably climaxes with our heroes gunning their way through dozens of people. They’re not really humans anymore, of course, so it’s all right that our team seems to be having so much adrenaline-fueled fun. After warming up on these not-people, they can turn their weapons on actual humans without much compunction. Only in America will there be enough guns and ammo lying around to keep everyone happily mowing each other down for decades after society collapses.
Is it acceptable to watch a child fantasize about guns on a hit TV show? I guess it depends on how much you love zombies—or rather, killing them. And that’s the itch The Last of Us really scratches. God, how we’d love to be on the same team for once, fighting the same enemies. Heaven knows, they are out there.
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