George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead did not invent zombies, but he brought the concept of them into the limelight through his cult classic. This explosion of attention on the undead introduced a series of media with zombies at the center, with fundamental additions such as World War Z, The Walking Dead, and 28 Days Later. Each had its own spin on zombie stories with the popular video game The Last of Us following shortly after.
The Zombie Trope
Zombies first originated from Haitian folklore, and after its entrance into media, it truly impacted not only literature and film, but created a monumental mark on video games. The House of the Dead, Resident Evil, Call of Duty: World at War, and many more introduced zombies as enemies for shooter games. In an interview with the Telegraph, Romero himself accredited the first two games as the reason zombies grew so popular. These games were violent and pulse-racing playthroughs with exciting action and dire consequences.
Enter: The Last of Us
When beta-testers first played The Last of Us in the beta stage before the 2013 release, it was met with disdain. The lack of “exotic” weapons and limited boss fights harshly contrasted with what was the norm of zombie video games at the time. Instead, The Last of Us focused on stealth missions, the journey, and finding one’s humanity within a zombie-infested world.
Largely narrative-driven, the game follows an at first reluctant pair, a man who lost his daughter and a daughter who lost her father, as they together travel across a crumbling nation. As they try to avoid “runners” and “clickers,” which are different kinds of zombies in the game. Through the trek, the two bond and form a tear-jerking father-daughter relationship.
In reference to other enemy-based zombie games, creator Neil Druckmann says to The Hollywood Reporter,
“What if [The Last of Us is instead] about intimate relationships — an exploration of the unconditional love a parent feels for their child and the beautiful things that could come out of that and the really horrible things that could come out of that?”— Neil Druckmann
Emotion Amid Apocalypse
Despite the backlash it received during the pre-release, The Last of Us released and became one of the most awarded and bestselling games in years. With its outstanding story and response, Hollywood showed an interest, and Druckmann now has his television adaptation on the way.
Stories with zombies as the enemy have the perfect opportunity to highlight humanity under pressure and The Last of Us shows how compelling those zombie stories can be. The zombie system within The Last of Us is ingenious — based on a real parasitic fungus that can control ants — and shouldn’t be overlooked, but how that virus affects human relationships is what is so charming about The Last of Us.
A Play on Genre
This quieter inversion of the typically intense and fast-paced horror genre sets a new standard for apocalyptic media. There are plenty of stories with action-packed plots, but instead, The Last of Us makes room for sentimental and familial stories through the zombie mess.
If you enjoy the sensitive ruminations The Last of Us evokes despite the grueling setting, Fall by Jared Muralt and Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones both sit nicely next to The Last of Us. Fall tells the story of a man desperate and determined to protect his loved ones as society collapses around him. Mongrels is on the other side of that dynamic and focuses on a young boy who attempts to make sense of his family’s place in a complex and grisly world.
The Last of Us airs on January 15th on HBO Max.