Despite having all the conventions of a zombie show—a worldwide catastrophe, survivors, and mindless creatures that once were human—The Last Of Us wants us to know that it really doesn’t want to be one. Cinematographer Eben Bolter, who worked on the show, said in an interview with The Credits that the word “zombie” was banned from the set. Journalists writing and talking about the show have been reminded by HBO to use the preferred term “infected” instead. But is it a distinction without a difference? Or is The Last Of Us creating something truly novel?
The discussion certainly isn’t new. Fans of the game have been having this argument since The Last Of Us first came out in 2013. You’d think they’d have figured it out by now, but no. Even after Neil Druckmann, co-creator of the game and co-showrunner of the series, stated on Twitter that the infected are not zombies, the debate continues.
The premise of a fungal species that infects humans and bends them to its will is something that hasn’t been done before. At least, not like this. Something else we haven’t seen before—creatures that evolve into more powerful stages of their life cycle as they age. Usually, they keep rotting until they completely decay and fall apart. The infected, on the other hand, get stronger and harder to kill with time. There’s also the not-so-minor point that the infected aren’t technically dead, or even undead. They’re controlled by the cordyceps. Does that mean there’s still a person inside somewhere (horrific, if true)? Is their brain completely taken over? Is being brain-dead the same thing as being all dead? The show doesn’t have any easy answers to these questions, and frequently shows its characters wrestling with them.
Will any of that stop the audience from comparing the show to The Walking Dead? Of course not. Let’s not forget that the “z word” never appeared in that show either, and that’s not the only thing they have in common. Both are set in a post-apocalyptic world where hordes of hostile monsters who used to be people could show up and attack at any moment. The few remnants of civilization that still exist have become tribalized and insular, some even predatory. The zombies (or whatever you want to call them) are just a device to tell stories about the nature of humanity. That’s a pretty common zombie trope, whether you’re dealing with the shambling George Romero variety or the rage-infected creatures in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (he didn’t consider them zombies either, but everyone collectively decided to ignore that). The Last Of Us doesn’t stop there, though; it has more to say about the nature of survival and the difference between surviving and living. In that way, it has more in common with its network sibling Station Eleven.
There’s no reason why a zombie show couldn’t tackle these issues just as well as one set in the aftermath of a pandemic. What’s so wrong with being a zombie show anyway? Are showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann worried that it might jeopardize the show’s prestige status? They may be justified in that thinking. There’s a perception in the industry—backed up by evidence—that genre shows and movies have an uphill battle when it comes to winning over snooty critics and viewers. The Walking Dead was consistently nominated for Emmy awards for its makeup and special effects, but didn’t get much love for any of the above-the-line talent. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the TV industry who wouldn’t want their show to have the kind of success The Walking Dead initially enjoyed. The series may have waned in popularity toward the end, but at its height it was a pop-cultural phenomenon, spawning a handful of spinoffs, with still more on the way.
It’s a little silly for a show to be so precious with a word, or an entire genre. The infected may not fit the technical definition of zombies, but that’s splitting hairs. For the purposes of the story, they serve the exact same function. When they attack they pose a threat to the protagonists and the potential outcomes aren’t any different: they can run away, kill them, get killed, or get bitten and eventually turn into one themselves. The Last Of Us sets itself apart from the zombie genre in many ways, but the nature of its central threat—be they living, dead, or undead—isn’t one of them. It’s like saying the Batman films don’t technically count as a superhero movies because Bruce Wayne has no super powers.
That being said, we appreciate that the show, like the game it’s based on, is trying to do something fresh with the genre. Episode six, “Kin,” gave us something we never saw on The Walking Dead, a peaceful settlement that’s sustainable and actually works. There wasn’t a single infected seen in the episode, something else The Walking Dead never did (every episode had at least one walker in it). It’s nice to have a reprieve, and some optimism mixed into the cocktail to balance out the bleaker moments (something else Station Eleven did well). The relationships between the characters are always front and center, as we watch the bond between Joel and Ellie grow and they start to heal each other’s past trauma without realizing it. That doesn’t mean it’s not a zombie show, though. Why not lean into it and take the win? We wouldn’t think any less of the The Last Of Us, or its creators, for that.