The popular video game-based horror show, “The Last of Us,” has received attention for its unorthodox approach to zombies, inspired by a real phenomenon between fungi and insects. The infected are a far cry from the original zombie, but how did they get here?

In “The Last of Us,” climate change has caused the ophiocordyceps fungus, commonly referred to as cordyceps, to mutate to infect humans, hijacking their bodies and minds so they no longer exhibit their personality and attack any non-infected on sight.

Marc Cubeta, professor and associate director of the Center for Integrated Fungal Research, said the “The Last of Us” phenomenon was inspired by and occurs mostly with ants, which is different from what the show exhibits. 

Cubeta said contrary to popular belief, researchers believe cordyceps does not have any control over the brains of the ants it infects, only the muscles. 

Cubeta said it is impossible for cordyceps to gain the ability to infect humans for a number of reasons. On top of not being able to grow at the temperature of the human body, the immune systems of insects are too different from that of humans for any sort of mutation to infiltrate human immune systems as instantaneously as it did in “The Last of Us.” 

Although the show took creative liberties with cordyceps, Cubeta said the otherworldliness of fungi is what draws people to be interested in the topic. He said he has witnessed this as a professor.

“There's so much interest,” Cubeta said. “I really think even though there's inaccuracy in what was presented, I think that what it brings to light is that fungi are really cool. And they do a lot of cool things.”

Josie Barth, assistant professor of film studies, specializes in teaching horror. Her class covers a unit on the development of zombies in film, which includes analyzing “The Last of Us.”

Barth said zombies originated in Haitian folklore and are different from what they are understood to be today. Zombies, or “zombis” in Haitian Creole, were dead bodies brought back to life by voodoo masters, or “bokors,” who had complete control of their actions. While they were undead, zombies often looked as they did when they were alive, except they did not display emotions or have an appetite for flesh and brains.

Zombies were mainly used by bokors as servants to perform hard labor, most notably sugar cane farming. Barth said the principle of using individuals for labor is reminiscent of colonialism and slavery in Haiti.

Barth said for the first few decades of zombie films, zombies were not feared — they were pitied. 

“In most cases, the zombie is not the kind of threat that we recognize today,” Barth said. “More than you are afraid of them, you're afraid that something similar might happen to you, that you might have your individuality and your will removed.”

Barth said zombies have evolved to encapsulate the current fears of society. During the 1930s, many people felt empty and hopeless due to the effects of the Great Depression. After World War II, zombies became thinner, grouped into hordes and looked more deathly, reminiscent of imagery of the Holocaust and bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Barth said she thinks the fear that “The Last of Us” portrays through the infected is the fear of humanity being phased out through climate change and the natural evolution of the Earth.

“I think there's something really interesting about this idea of zombies as not some kind of foreign entity or invasion, but zombies as a form of natural evolution,” Barth said. “You get the sense with the fungal thing that well, maybe that's just the next life form. Maybe it's just not our world anymore. Maybe humans have done what they can.”

I am a first-year studying English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Professional Writing. I joined Technician as a correspondent in August 2022, and I write primarily in the news and culture sections.

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