The Reign of Zombies and How ‘The Last of Us’ is Helping the Genre Evolve

Katie Elsaesser
Games The Walking Dead
Games The Walking Dead

As the release date of The Last of Us Part II draws close, fans are chomping at the bit to see how the next chapter of this story plays out.

For a zombie killing game, 2013’a The Last of Us is less about killing zombies and more about the story of the living. Naughty Dog said in an interview with Eurogamer back in 2011 that The Last of Us was, in fact, not a zombie game at all, but a plot-driven experience. Many criticized the remark and said, “Ok… So it’s a zombie game.” The game calls zombies “The Infected,” but every fan knew these were zombies.

Although this feels like an argument of semantics, it may in fact be our perception of what zombie stories are that is starting to change. Zombies have become less of a focal point in stories set in a zombie-filled world, and more of a backdrop. In fact, zombies are rarely the main interest in zombies stories these days, rather it’s the people trying to survive them that pique our interest, and The Last of Us has helped this change come to video games in a notable way.

Zombie Symbolism (Zymbolism?)

A History of Zombies
Joel and Ellie in The Walking Dead, Rick and Daryl in The Walking Dead, Dying Light Zombie

Zombies have come in and out of fashion for ages, and between shows like The Walking Dead and video games like Dying Light, are coming off a particularly big decade. We are obsessed with zombies! And there might be a cathartic reason for this obsession.

At its core, zombies represent an inexplicable fear of an unrelenting onslaught. There are typically only three solutions to zombies, kill it, be killed by it, or the hardest solution; cure it.

Think about it, zombies represent more than death, but a horrifying reimagining of “life after death.” Through a zombie death, a person loses their mind, personality, and soul. They become a husk of what they once were and a reminder to the living that they are next.

The appearance of zombies in entertainment differs over the years, but at its root seems to be related to our fear of a threat with no foreseeable ending. “How familiar does that sound?” she asked writing from her millionth day in quarantine. The correlation is hard to miss and this is just the beginning. To better understand zombies, our fascination, and their rise to popularity, let’s take a deeper dive into the history of where zombies came from.

The History of Zombies

Evolution of the Zombie
From White Zombie, to Dawn of the Dead, to The Walking Dead

One of the earliest recordings of a fear of zombie-like creatures came from archaeological digs in Greece. Skeletons were found pinned down by giant boulders and other heavy objects, and archaeologists theorized that the boulders were there to prevent the dead from seeking revenge in the afterlife. (, 2017)

The first mention of zombies comes from Haiti, where zombies were considered part of Vodou rituals. This was during a time when European forces enslaved Haitian natives over centuries and forced them to work in sugar cane fields. In his controversial book The Magic Island, W.B. Seabrook wrote an insanely misrepresented account of Haitian culture, but also introduced the US to the word “zombie”. “The zombie,” writes Seabrook, “is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life”. Seabrook’s book was released in 1929, just at the start of the Great Depression in the states. At this time, zombies were not the flesh-eating or brain-hungry monsters they eventually developed into in pop culture, but rather the soulless worker, whose only purpose was “to do the master’s will.”

Not long after the debut of The Magic Island, the US became obsessed, and the first zombie movie graced the silver screen. White Zombie was released in 1932 and at the height of unemployment in the Great Depression. The film stars Bela Legosi, playing a Vodou sorcerer who helps turn a young white woman into a mindless zombie, so a plantation owner can marry her. The bigoted underlying message of the film seems to be the fear that a white couple could be susceptible to the same fate as the Haitian slaves.

White Zombie (1932)
The Zombies of White Zombie

Many films followed after White Zombie, mimicking the same sentiment of the mindless slave. It wasn’t until the late 60s that zombies started to take a more decayed look, and it was during the height of the Vietnam War and a time where television was pushing the boundaries of showing violence on television that zombies changed into the grotesque flesh-eating zombies we know today.

In Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s depiction of zombies changed from the mindless slave to an aggressive threat that only wants to destroy the living. The gore-filled film showed mangled skin and bloody clothes on the flesh-eating monsters. Zombies, though still dumb, were able to use tools, and fight more creatively which was vastly different from the shuffling zombies of the past. Suddenly, the rules of zombies change, and it’s clear that Romero set the tone for the next few decades of zombie entertainment.

Zombies Enter Video Games

Quicksilva's Zombie Zombie on the ZX Spectrum
Zombie Zombie (1984)

Many credit the first zombie video game to Zombie Zombie, by Quicksilva for the ZX Spectrum. Zombie Zombie came out in 1984 in the United Kingdom during a recession. The player would lure zombies up a set of steps, hop over a chasm, and allow the zombie to fall to their death. Fighting zombies in video games at this point was about strategy, but it didn’t take long for games to change over to massive arsenals of weapons. Suddenly fighting zombies became less about strategy and boiled down to kill or be killed.

The 80s brought in a new wave unleashing holy hell on zombies, and games were no longer a digital version of tag, but rather a search and destroy-level of butt-kicking. Ubisoft’s very first game was Zombi and would later be ported over to several newer consoles. The game borrows heavily from Romero’s second classic zombie film, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, taking place in a mall. A particularly unique time during the Reaganomics era, where public opinion towards poverty shifted from compassion to extreme animosity. In Zombi, when characters would turn, they would wander the mall until gamers unloaded an unholy amount of ammo into them.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The mall in Dawn of the Dead (1978)

During the 90s and the 2000s, zombie entertainment became a little more whimsical. Movies like Shaun of the Dead rose to fame alongside other comedy horrors. Zombieland was released in 2009 around the same time as Microsoft’s Minecraft. Both had released only a year after the US hit a major housing crisis, and zombies at this point had become pesky annoyances. Sure, they were still a scary threat, but as long as Columbus had his rules for the apocalypse, and gamers had their weakness potions and golden apples, the flesh-eaters could be handled.

For the most part, this is how zombies were dealt with in entertainment, a nuisance that was always there but not really the main drive of the story or game. Suddenly zombies became a background piece to another story. But this is the issue with stories about zombies; much like their subject matter, zombie stories are incredibly difficult to end.

If Death Isn’t the End, What Is?

Even when the hero saves the day, or a cure is procured, there is still the fear that somewhere out there a zombie will rise again. How many movies or video games say that the zombie threat has been eliminated, only to show a post-credit decayed hand punching through the soil? There is always a threat that zombies will return, and when a character says, “It’s over, you’re safe now,” the audience instinctively rejects this.

Because there are no real endings to zombie stories. Characters may die, but there is always the potential for more, which might be the most unsettling part of zombie horror. When The Walking Dead rose to popularity, everyone wondered how long Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), could remain the focus of the show and what would happen if he left. Well, as it turned out, the story continued on, even when Rick wasn’t the focus of it. This is a necessity in the telling of ongoing zombie stories, as there is no one solution to the problem. The Walking Dead has evolved the show beyond the main protagonist and they aren’t the only ones doing this.

Enter The Last of Us

Joel and Ellie hide in Last of Us
Naughty Dog's Last of Us

In the first Last of Us game, we’re introduced to a world that has been living with this threat for several years. Always on the edge of a settlement the zombies, or “The Infected,” are an ever-looming menace. Unlike the vast majority of previous zombie video games, The Last of Us was more focused on survival. Players had limited access to ammo and often had to craft items to take out the deadly creatures. Suddenly the point of killing zombies switched from total destruction to calculated choices. Traveling through the game, players become acquainted with different factions of survivors and how the loss of humanity is now a survival skill.

Throughout the game, players play mainly as Joel, until the “Lakeside Resort” chapter. It’s here that the game diverges from games of its type. Joel has been injured, after falling on a metal spike, and it would have been simple storytelling to just allow Joel to die, or even pick back up when Joel returns to consciousness, but the game allowed players to continue the story playing as the young Ellie. This was the first sense players got that even if Joel was no longer part of the story, the story itself would keep going. Of course, Joel is eventually revived and continues as the main protagonist, but the simple switch may mean big changes for the zombie genre, especially when it comes to games.

The Death of the Saviour Motif

As discussed previously, it is really hard to end a zombie story satisfactorily. Either all zombies have to be killed, or all zombies have to be cured. Both are viable, but cheapen the story as a whole. Neil Druckmann, Director and VP at Naughty Dog, wants players to be uncomfortable with some of the decisions they have to make in The Last of Us games.

“If we’re going to tell this story, we have to go there. We have to make you feel uncomfortable,” he explained to Variety in 2018. “We don’t use the word ‘fun’ but it needs to be engaging. If you care about this character, and there are stakes, you are engaged. I don’t want you to willy-nilly commit these acts. I want you to feel these moments.”

It’s no longer mindlessly killing the mindless, but the uncomfortable decisions players have to make in order to survive.

With the transition of the main character switching over to Ellie, there have been a ton of theories flying around that Joel is no longer alive. Whether or not this is true is still yet to be seen, and this may not even be the question fans need to ask. But rather, who else are we going to follow after we finish Ellie’s story?

As the main story of Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead started to branch out into spinoff TV shows and video games, the world started to expand. The story became less about a single savior who would fix all the world’s problems and changed instead of how humanity as a collective tries to solve them. Following one hero in a zombie apocalypse is just not viable anymore, and it is now becoming a requirement to follow other heroes.

The Last of Us now looks more like a chronology detailing several stories. Without relying on the tropes of a cure, or killing all the undead, the story becomes more encompassing. A story of the last of humanity, and the tough decisions they have to make in order to survive. There isn’t a single savior figure who will save the day, but a collective of people who, decades after the initial events, still have to figure out how to live in this new life. It wouldn’t be surprising to see that this series follows several other stories beyond Ellie and Joel. Despite all the turmoil, people live on, the story never ends, because to end it would truncate its emotional potential.

Katie Elsaesser
Katie is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. Will do almost anything for pizza. Almost.