*Warning: Minor spoilers for The Last of Us ahead.
You usually don't think of zombie stories as deep thinkers. Certainly not the kind of stories that keep you up at night thinking about medical research, the structure of society and the shape of religion if society dissolves. But then, The Last of Us is narrative light years beyond Night of the Living Dead and the former stories that made us nervous of that bump in the night.
Zombies are in. You can't go to a movie theater, watch TV or play a game without one lurching at you with flesh-eating fervor. It's not surprising that the zombie genre brings an estimated $5 billion in the world economy.
For the purposes of this commentary, I'm going to think of The Last of Us as a case in the much bigger narrative of zombies in our culture. And as a cultural narrative, it addresses issues of gender, fears of science, and the threat of societal upheaval. But why zombies?
The horror genre in general has always been a reflection of our social anxieties. In Bram Stroker's Dracula, the Victorian-era vampire is invited into the house and then breaks the basic rules of hospitality -- by, you know, sucking people's blood. Dracula is also in some ways seen as a cannibal (the blood sucking thing), overtly sexual and not only a non-Christian but anti-Christian. In Victorian society, Dracula embodied a real societal fear.
In the wake of 9/11, zombie narratives have increased dramatically, which isn't surprising considering the concerns in our culture since then -- SARS, bird flu, chemical weapons and the radicals and extremists with whom you can't reason and you can't negotiate. Then what can we make of the zombies in The Last of Us?
In The Last of Us, the zombie contagion spreads through both zombie bites and through spores which create a fungus that takes over the infected's brain. As the infected succumb to the disease, they gradually become a greater and greater threat. The pandemic takes over America (and presumably the globe), dismantling the government as we know it and returning humanity to an essentially tribal condition. And for each tribe, there is a sense in which the mantra is "kill or be killed." Some look like hippy communes while others look like cults. Into this violent world come the protagonists Joel, who lost his daughter in the initial outbreak and resists an easy "good guy" label, and Ellie, a 14-year-old girl who is immune to the virus.
The zombies certainly pose a threat to Joel and Ellie, but the true threat in the game isn't the zombies but the people left behind. They're harder to combat, they have better weapons and in many ways they're as animalistic as the zombies. Under the pressure of this contagion, the dissolved human society is in many ways parallel to the zombie world -- continuing when it should have died and surviving through the death and misfortune of others. And yes, there are even cannibals. The danger then isn't from the contagion but what the reality of that contagion does to "the last of us" in society.
There's no mention of organized religion in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us. The most overt religion that appears is with a threatening, cult-like group Ellie and Joel encounter. The leader David, mutters to himself "Lord, forgive 'em" as he kills infected and his headquarters has a banner which reads "When we are in need, He shall provide." Presumably, the "He" is Christ since the banner text is in black but the "He" is in red--a clear link to the Christian New Testament.
We of course also find out that David is crazy, a cannibal and eager to kill 14-year-old Ellie. In general, the image presented is one in which most traditional institutions, including the religious, have dissolved. The religion that remains, like the society that remains, is troubling.
As we watch dramatic governmental upheavals taking place across the globe in the past weeks, it's not hard to identify with the fears of a society falling apart. Games like The Last of Us leave us with a question: when the dust settles what happens to those remain?