'The Last of Us:' A closer look at the zombie genre

The Last of Us Zombie Photo/ Liane Hentscher/HBO

Unilateralis fungi, an actual species that invades ants and controls their brains, infects humans in "The Last of Us."

Time marches on, new stories enter the world of entertainment, but one fact remains: People love zombies.

The latest entry in the genre is HBO's “The Last of Us,” an adaptation of the popular video game series. Each week the show gains viewership and breaks records, with 7.5 million viewers watching the latest episode.

It follows in the staggering zombie footsteps of successful productions like “The Walking Dead” and “The Night of the Living Dead,” and professor Thomas Doherty says the new series’ success should be no surprise.

Doherty, a cultural historian with a special interest in American film, teaches Hollywood and American Culture, Television and American Culture, and other related courses on campus. He shares his thoughts on why viewers continue to tune into zombie franchises year after year and despite the terror, the living among us can all bond together in the fighting against the undead.

When were we first introduced to zombies in cinema?

The zombie genre emerged during World War II in 1943 with “I Walked with a Zombie,” which touched upon Haitian voodoo. Another notable entry in zombie film history is “The Last Man on Earth” (1964) with Vincent Price, but the movie that really kicks it off is George Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead” (1968), a real cannibalistic gorefest. 

This became the prototype for zombie apocalypse movies. Nothing like it had been seen before in cinema. The hero that you’re following along with ends up being shot and put into a pit of zombies. It was a bolt of lightning of terror for audiences. Several sequels and films were produced after that, such as the popular “Day of the Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and other major films.

Here we saw the core conventions of the zombie genre established—especially the essential advice that anyone tangling with a zombie needs to heed: “Kill the brain and you kil the ghoul.”

That’s remained “zombie canon” across the Zombie Cinematic Universe.

Zombies are convenient villains because you can kill them without any remorse at all. They’re the perfect enemy because they look like people but they’re not people, so you can eliminate as many as you want. That’s why the shooter games focus on zombies, because even if you’re killing really bad villains, in the end they’re human. Presumably you don’t want to enjoy killing humans, but you can do that with our zombie friends.

How do zombie films reflect United States culture and feelings around the concept of death?

Anytime we project something into the future, it is a projection of our present day fears or hopes. For most zombie films, it’s the fear that humanity will come to an end. That’s the difference between a dystopic vision, about conditions where the world is getting worse and we’re losing hope, and a utopia, where conditions for life are perfect. Of course the problem with utopias cinematically is that they are peaceful and boring.

In the 50’s we were afraid of the Russians and nuclear war. Because of this, so many science fiction movies around this time were about that fear of invasion. This was a boom time for alien invasion movies where we saw extraterrestrials from Mars invade the United States. 

In the same year that we’re introduced to “Night of the Living Dead” we encounter the fear of artificial intelligence, another dystopian vision. Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" introduced the computer as the entity to be most feared because it is smarter than us.

When talking about “The Last of Us,” the obvious thing going on right now is climate change. It’s a pretty transparent allegory.

The show opens with introducing unilateralis fungi, an actual species that invades ants and controls their brains once they are infected. The first episode mentions they aren’t a threat, unless temperatures rise. The show takes place in a modern day, a few degrees warmer, where these fungi are now taking over humans and turning them into controlled zombies.

“The Last of Us” illustrates this thought that nature is coming full circle back at us. It’s a projection of those anxieties. Any dystopia is a projection of the present day’s anxieties.

Why do you think the zombie genre continues to be popular?

Zombie films are sociological and psychological. Zombies force us to address what makes us human, and makes us put aside differences to fight the zombie threat. All human differences melt away into nothingness when facing this threat.

In “The Walking Dead,” a popular AMC television adaptation of the comic book series, we see these multicultural crews of individuals. They come together from different backgrounds with their only common ground being that they are alive and against the dead. All the problems we face about race, sexual orientation, and gender go away when zombies are attacking because we're all united to face this battle. When society faces adversity, such as war tensions, we can unite as humans against a common threat; zombies. You’re either alive or dead, or rather undead.

What makes for a successful adaptation?

You can develop a core audience, but it can take a long time for an adaptation to go through the production process. For example, in my true crime course we talk about “The Devil in White City,” a bestselling novel from 2003. It was auctioned immediately to be produced, but they couldn't find the right director, actors, and other variables. It’s just stuck in development hell.

One of the most important things is making sure your core audience is pre-sold on the concept because without that base creating a buzz, it's harder to attract an unfamiliar audience.. Some examples could include Twilight, a young adult romance series, and The Walking Dead, which have seen major success because their stories captured audiences beyond their readers. Most of the people who have watched The Walking Dead or The Last of Us weren’t familiar with the graphic novels or the video game.

This can also be challenging for the producers and the actors because they feel wedded to the canonical tropes of the characters portrayed. There’s certain narrative possibilities that writers could go to, but in those set-in-stone franchises you can’t do as much. It can also hurt the franchise when viewers aren’t expecting major plotlines carried over from the original source, such as a death of a major favorite character.

There are things going on in “The Last of Us” that are parallel to the video game. For example, spoiler alert, in the end of episode two, ‘Infected,’ Anna Torv’s character of Tess is killed by zombies. Everybody loved her performance. When you kill off favorite characters, you run the risk of losing audience members.

Categories: Arts, General

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