HBO’s "The Last of Us," based on the video game of the same name, seems to have taken the world by storm. The show follows Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) as he tries to survive in a post-pandemic world. This is not COVID-19, but a fungal virus breakout that turns humans into mindless killing machines. After surviving the initial outbreak, Joel is tasked with escorting Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) — a young girl believed to be the key to the cure — across America.
"The Last of Us" has been a critical success for HBO, garnering millions of views each episode. According to Variety, "The Last of Us" had HBO's second most-viewed series premiere in over a decade, behind only the "Game of Thrones" prequel "House of the Dragon." The ratings have also reflected the fans' fervor and love for the show, ranking it as IMDb’s #1 most popular television series (as of 2/24/2023), with an overall score of 9.2/10.
Incidentally, joining "The Last of Us" on IMDb’s list is AMC’s "The Walking Dead," ranked at #8. Time after time, zombie shows and movies have been met with an overall positive reception, if not from critics, then from viewers. First to introduce the zombie to America’s cultural consciousness was Carnegie Mellon's own George Romero and his zombies in "Night of the Living Dead," which would eventually be followed by an influx of iconic movies such as "I am Legend," "World War Z," "Shaun of the Dead," "Train to Busan," and more. And the grip that "The Walking Dead" had on popular culture during its run was inordinate.
So my question is: If it is so universally enjoyed, why is the zombie genre seen as so low-brow? Though loved by its fans, it seems as if all the casual viewer sees is the gore and the action. The horror genre in general seems to only be recognized as a cheap, thrill-inducing genre and nothing more. However, I am here to make a case for horror, and more specifically, the zombie genre.
My thesis is this: zombies highlight humanity by contrasting us with our inhumanity. And at the end of the day, people love to see their humanity thriving and reflected back at them, even in a zombie apocalypse. To tie this article together, think of the third episode of "The Last of Us," which follows two men, Bill and Frank, as they fall in love while fortifying their home base to survive through zombies and raiders. There are barely any zombies in the entire episode, but it still slots in perfectly with the narrative, as it is about human connections. I would also argue that the main plot of the show is not about Ellie and Joel fighting off zombies (as badass as those scenes are), but about their relationship, and about Joel coming to terms with his daughter’s death.
If you don’t want to take my word for it here, go watch any zombie movie or film, and decide for yourself whether or not what you’re watching is about really about humans fighting zombies, or about humans being humans.