We all know the zombie genre; gory, lumbering, mindless monsters that attack bands of scruffy survivors after an apocalypse. Sometimes slow moving, sometimes fast, always bitten and stupid, the zombie has been used countless times for thrilling, if not basic, entertainment. It seemed that the material that came with it had dried up in recent years as productions like “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Dawn of the Dead” appeared to have covered all the bases. However, on January 15, HBO released its major hit “The Last of Us,” a zombie series that took the monster theme but gave it a uniquely human angle. While this show is about the undead, it is character and story driven, featuring themes of single-parenting, pandemics, and chosen family. “The Last of Us” brings humanity to the classic monster genre.
The show starts out with an intense pilot, featuring a pandemic-centered apocalypse where the very real ophiocordyceps fungus mutates to take over human bodies due to rising global temperatures and climate change. The infection causes people to brutally attack and bite others without a mind of their own. It is a classic zombie model with a current twist of climate change and a pandemic theme. The timing of the show’s release hits especially close to home as the world is emerging from a pandemic and climate change becomes a more prevalent problem. This just adds another shade of realness and relativity to the show.
Beyond the uncomfortable relatability of the series, what makes “The Last of Us” powerful is that the characters are at the heart of the show, not the monsters. While there are plenty of violent battles and bizarre zombies, the true magnetism of the show comes from the two leads, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Their connection and playful dynamic is what makes viewers care about them enough to hold their breath during every battle.
Additionally, the introduction of other side characters, and the in depth exploration of their backstories adds a completely new aspect not only to zombie movies but to television in general. The third episode takes a detour from the main pair, telling the love story of two seemingly irrelevant men during this apocalyptic setting. Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett display the lives of two middle aged men who meet after the outbreak and fall in love on Offerman’s character’s well-equipped survivalist homestead. This episode brings something unique to the apocalyptic framework of the show by creating a moment of immersive peace while we explore the lives of two characters who seem unrelated to our main ones. Their romantic story ends when they both peacefully end their lives, and the show shifts back to Joel and Ellie. In another instance, the most recent episode followed Ellie’s experience with her past love interest, Riley (Storm Reid), and how that loss set her on her path.
This deep dive into emotions, love, and human connection is unexpected given that the show is based on a video game. Most television like this is more action driven, like its video game counterpart. But “The Last of Us” refutes that stereotype by representing diverse stories and voices — some of which, like Ellie’s love interest, Riley, weren’t even represented in the video game — while also featuring an action driven plot.
“The Last of Us” brings to life an age-old plot but with deep connection — both between the characters and the viewers. The real world issues it represents make it relatable, while its apocalyptic setting makes it the right amount of escape from daily life. “The Last of Us” sparks laughter, raises awareness, and redefines the zombie movie genre by raising the bar and daring other shows to be as heartbreaking, hilarious, and captivating.