As the showrunner points out, this isn’t a zombie apocalypse scenario rooted in impossibility. It’s a pandemic story about a health crisis that couldn’t be contained and eventually, went on to upend society. Twenty years after the infection first emerged, Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) are navigating a world where a mindless fungus zombie could be just around the corner, waiting to infect them. And once Cordyceps takes root, there’s no turning back. While Ellie happens to be a singular exception to the rules of infection, everyone else left in the world is fair game.
All it takes is a single mistake or a breath full of fungal spores. Just like that, the fungus grows while its host is still alive, shutting off brain function and taking over the body. In some ways, “zombie” isn’t even a fitting description for the infected folks shambling (and sometimes sprinting!) through this story: sure, they are mindlessly infected humans who can spread their virus via bites and scratches, but they aren’t actually undead. And instead of consuming brains, this fungus is overtaking them.
Making things even more chilling, the inspiration for the infection is based on a real-life fungus. Druckmann and his fellow Naughty Dog developers have previously revealed that they were inspired by an episode of the BBC documentary “Planet Earth,” which featured an infected ant being killed by a Cordyceps fungus. So they asked a simple question — what if that fungus could attach itself to a human? And thus we have the infected horde who have laid waste to society in “The Last of Us.” Honestly, is there anything scarier than nature itself?
“The Last of Us” premieres on HBO and HBO Max on January 15, 2023.