Warning: Contains spoilers for The Last of Us video game and HBO series! (Oh, and for The Walking Dead… And maybe a few other zombie films too.)
I remember when Naughty Dog released the first iteration of its popular game, The Last of Us (2013) because a friend of mine worked with the sound design team for the game. This friend started out as a game tester and through years of effort, was eventually creating game sound and dialogue. The release was a BDF for his personal success and at the time, felt like something new in gaming: it was realistic, cinematic, and emotional. (And incidentally, it was reviewed very, very well.) This past month HBO released The Last of Us as a TV series. I was excited and thought I knew what to expect. I know what happens in the game after all. But after watching episode three, Long, Long Time (aired Jan. 29, 2023), I found myself considering what seems like something new in a zombie story as well.
I am a big fan of zombie films and media. I’ve continued watching The Walking Dead, even though they killed off Glen, Rick is missing, and Michonne is off looking for him to the detriment of my viewing pleasure. Actually, I’m finishing The Walking Dead now, as its final season is now available streaming. The Walking Dead is what I have come to expect in zombie media: scary zombies give way to scarier people who can’t handle the apocalypse like human beings, intermixed with efforts to retain humanity. Like 28 Days Later which reverses the racial trope of the Black male savior (who frequently saves a white woman) common to many zombie films, The Walking Dead features a white hero who ends up with a Black woman—though neither character is a part of the show anymore. I’ve liked the Walking Dead; but as the show winds down I’ve wondered if zombie shows are sort of dead too; mostly, because zombies aren’t scary anymore.
Zombies as film monsters are really a rip on and appropriation of the Hattian zonbi, which is a captured soul with a complex history and relationship to colonization. As Elilzabeth McAlister argues, when making a zonbi, which must be cared for, “the living take charge of their history …mimetically perform[ing] master-slave relationships with spirits of the dead” (464), continuing, that where “Afro-Caribbeans were rendered nonhuman by being legally transposed into commodities [now,] the enslaved dead hold a respected place within the religion” (emphasis hers, 465). The zonbi is more about the past in the present and ambiguities therein. Whereas early Western depictions of zombies were about dehumanizing and the mystification of racialized others (McAlister, 2012).
But what about the zombies we know from modern zombie moves? You know, like the ones from The Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which a Black man saves a group of white people, only to be killed at the end by white militia. This is clearly a critique of racism, yes? Perhaps yes; though McAlister will remind her readers that these films are rife with racialized tropes as well. She further suggests that the real monster in modern zombie films is the “hyperwhite” (480). That is to say: the hyper consuming, culture stealing, dead inside so they have to “eat” (hooks in McAlister, 481) the culture of others white (neo/settler) colonizer. And I would argue that this hyperwhite is damn scary in a lot of zombie films. Dawn of the Dead (2004) horrified me, as survivors barely made it out of the shopping mall in which they sheltered alive. The first Resident Evil (2002) was intense, the heart pumping action only fueled by the film’s Marilyn Manson soundtrack.
But let’s jump to the 2000s.
iZombie (2015-2019) features a white female zombie detective who helps to solve crimes by eating the brains of murdered people to get a sense of what happened to them. (So, now “eating the other” (hooks in McAlister, 481) can help us whites learn about the violence we’ve done to them?)
In Warm Bodies (2013) the white male teen lead is cured of his zombism when he falls in love for the first time.
The idea of a “friendly zombie” is an interesting trend. I am still trying to decide if this is an effort by white Americans to forgive ourselves, relinquish responsibility, or perhaps, just perhaps, deal with the reality of being unsatiable consuming monsters and try to choose another direction? Some combination of all these, or something else? These are thoughts for another blog. Suffice to say, there is trend in zombie shows and, at least for me, they’re getting boring. (Sheesh; what does that say about whiteness? Again, thoughts for another blog.) But really, zombies aren’t so scary these days.
Now let’s skip back to The Last of Us. I wanted to like this show; and I do. The zombies are little different— the product of human infection by pernicious fungus. Scary/ Not scary – kind of like the zombies in the Walking Dead. But as Joel escorts Ellie across what’s left of the United States, not yet knowing that this child contains the only cure to the fungus infection, we meet Joel’s friends: Frank and Bill. Bill is a survivalist who creates his own refuge after all the other people are trucked out of his town only to be executed in order to contain possible infection outside of quarantine zones. And Frank becomes his lover and partner.
Long, Long Time is a love story. The two men meet, bicker, make friends, fall in love, and create a life together. Their relationship is tender. Bill is a masterful cook. Frank is masterful at enjoying and appreciating Bill; and helping him to access the experiences that lead to genuine connection. They are vulnerable together, and Bill admits to Frank (as they kiss in the strawberry patch) that “I was never afraid before you showed up.”
Like in real life, Bill and Frank’s love was special, and mundane. They make a household and life together, set against the backdrop of the apocalypse which is just life. Thinking about this episode in comparison to say, Warm Bodies, Bill’s “cure” wasn’t love because there was nothing wrong with Bill. He was just alone. He accessed more life because of love. And for me, it felt different from what I’ve seen before.
I am not sure what The Last of Us will ultimately contribute to the racial discourses attached to the zombie media. I know it introduces a “normal” gay relationship, which challenges gendered ideas of who is gay and what homosexuality “looks like.” It is hard not to notice, though, that all the men in the episode are white. I also know this episode tells us something about the main character, Joel, who we are just starting to get to know—even though those of us who are familiar with the video game know that he too will choose love (for Ellie) over the world. I’ve yet to draw conclusions—but like the game, the episode was real and emotional. And I am interested.
McAlister, Elizabeth. “Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies.” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Spring 2012), pp. 457-486.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.