*****SPOILER INFECTION RISK!*****
If you’ve never seen any of the zombie apocalypse scenarios that have arisen since 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” or TV’s more recent “The Walking Dead” (based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels), then HBO’s new (and well-crafted) “The Last of Us” will be one helluva surprise. However, if you’ve seen as many of these movies/books/TV shows as I have over five decades, you’ll practically be waiting for the familiar zombie-apocalypse beats to fall into place. And they do. Right on schedule, in fact…
Based on a popular 2013 video game (which I’ve never played; I have the video game skills of a coordination-challenged toddler), “The Last of Us” is essentially a quest series, set across a bleak, authoritarian apocalypse; a too-easy pairing of “The Walking Dead” TV series with 2009’s “The Road.” Led by “The Mandalorian” star Pedro Pascal, there is arguably much to recommend with this series (solid casting, cinematic production values, etc). But to any longtime zombie-apocalypse connoisseur, its familiar tropes are a potential detriment, as well.
Season 1, Episode 1: “When You’re Lost in the Darkness…”
A prologue set in a 1968 TV talk show sees several scientists discussing the plausibility of a new fungal outbreak which could possess human host bodies much in the same way certain parasites can control ants and other ‘zombie’ insects, forcing the zombified host creatures to bend to their will. There’s plenty of plausible-sounding biology-babble in the mix to soothe a layman.
Note: 1968 is also the year that George Romero (1940-2017) unleashed “Night of the Living Dead” into the world. This humble, low-budget flick redefined zombies as reanimated corpses who consume human flesh, rather than earlier, more traditional depictions as sleepwalking victims of Haitian voodoo (see: “White Zombie,” “Voodoo Man” “I Walked With a Zombie”). Pretty much every zombie movie/graphic novel/TV series since 1968 owes its existence to Romero’s radical reinvention of the genre.
Cutting to a Texas suburb in an alternate 2003, the first act of the pilot shows the beginnings of such a fungal outbreak, one capable of infecting humans and turning them into flesh-eating quasi-zombies who are fast-moving, and very dangerous (closer to the rage virus of “28 Days Later” than George Romero’s slow, shuffling flesh-eaters).
Protagonist Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) is a single dad ‘celebrating’ his 36th birthday by heading out to a construction gig, along with his brother, Tommy (Diego Luna). His sweet, savvy daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) plans to surprise him by stealing a few funds from his sock drawer and repairing his favorite watch. Before long, all hell slowly begins to break loose. Swarms of sirens break the peace of this suburban landscape. We see indications of a brewing apocalypse as social order slowly collapses over the course of this otherwise ‘normal’ day.
Note: The timing of this series, as much as its quality of production, is perhaps another reason it seems to have resonated so well with audiences during its premiere weekend—debuting right on the heels of the COVID pandemic; the worst pandemic the world has seen in over 100 years, with millions of people dead worldwide, and almost weekly mutations and variants. Words like ‘quarantine zones’ and ‘shelter in place’ have become all too familiar to this generation. Timing in entertainment can often be as important as quality; even more so, in some cases…
Joel’s evening birthday celebration with Sarah is interrupted when he has to bail his brother out of jail following a violent self-defense against a fungal-infected host. With her dad away, a sleeping Sarah is awakened by the sounds of bursting emergency flares and helicopters shattering the calm of the neighborhood. All of this in addition to other emergency vehicles piercing the night air.
Note: This first act of a slowly escalating zombie apocalypse in an early 2000s setting reminded me very much of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead”; one of the few Zack Snyder films I genuinely enjoyed, and one of the more successful horror remakes, as well. One of that film’s smartest moves was not settling for a rote remake of the 1978 original.
Checking in on her elderly neighbors, Sarah is mortified to see them being eaten by their near-catatonic matriarch (Wendy Gorling), who’s in full zombie-mode. Sarah flees the neighbor’s house of horrors just in time for her dad to pull up in his truck with Tommy. Without thinking, Joel dispatches the elderly-yet-deadly fungal zombie in full view of other neighbors, who don’t know how to react to the confusing melee around them.
Note: Once again, like Snyder’s reimagining of “Dawn of the Dead” where we saw a sweet young neighbor girl’s startling before-and-after transformation, we meet Joel and Sarah’s next door neighbors; in this case, older folks looking after their dying ‘nana.’ When we first meet nana, she’s observably catatonic, but also showing early symptoms that Sarah observes in her classmates at school, such as uncontrolled hand tremoring. Nana’s gruesome transformation later on, with fungal-like sprouts emanating from her bloody mouth, are graphically illustrated, yes, but lacking in genuine shock, or even surprise.
The end of the first act sees Joel, Tommy and Sarah trying to flee to Mexico. Stuck in heavy crowds, and swarmed by looters, panicked escapees and armed national guardsmen, Sarah is shot in her abdomen and dies in her father’s arms. In the confusion, Joel and Tommy are separated…
Note: I realize I’m not up on the parameters of the game, but Sarah was the funniest, sweetest, and most empathetic character I’d seen in the entire pilot, and she’s killed off after the first act. Once she died, I have to admit, my interest level began to wane a bit. Actor Diego Luna, who plays Tommy, also played the new model killing machine in the otherwise forgettable “Terminator: Dark Fate” (2019).
Cut to an alternate present of 2023. We see a filthy quarantine zone in what was once downtown Boston. The United States has been under a violent, corrupt form of martial law for nearly 20 years now. A democratic resistance movement, led by Marlene (Merle Dandridge) and Kim (Natasha Numba), hope to restore some semblance of the United States’ lost democracy by any means necessary. They’ve been labeled guerillas and terrorists by the current regime, and both are deeply frustrated by the lack of traction in their movement to date.
Note: Much could (and no doubt will) be mined from the political atmosphere of this series, which sees the United States falling under a far-right martial regime in the decades following the fungal pandemic. Given recent political turmoil, such as the January 6th 2021 coup attempt, this atmosphere does afford the series even more relevance, though more from fortuitous timing than any great foresight.
Chained up in the insurrectionists’ custody is an angry, post apocalypse-raised 14 year old kid named Ellie (Bella Ramsay). Ellie is infected with the same fungal plague that has swept the world, yet she has not succumbed to any of its zombifying effects, making her the world’s great hope in creating a biological resistance or adaptation to the fungus.
Note: The story of a hero smuggling an all-important young savior to safety is a very old trope, more recently used in movies such as 2006’s “Children of Men,” and in Pedro Pascal’s own hit Disney+ Star Wars TV series, “The Mandalorian.” As I’ve said, there is nothing terribly new or innovative about this video game adaptation, however well put together.
A much older, grayer Joel now does whatever dirty work he can in order to make enough cash to bribe guards and radio operators in hopes of making contact with Tommy, who is rumored to be alive somewhere in the Midwest. We see that former single dad Joel is now living with fellow survivor, Tess Servopoulos (Anna Torv), who’s just come home after taking a nasty beating by a local gangster’s thugs over a bad score. Business and barter in this post-apocalypse are pretty rough…
Note: Anna Torv is an Australian actress best known to sci-fi fans for her work in the JJ Abrams sci-fi series “Fringe” (2008-2013).
A badly-wounded Marlene negotiates with the opportunistic Joel and Tess to smuggle Ellie to a safe haven in another state. With nothing to lose, and the promise of munitions and fresh supplies to continue their two-decade quest to find Tommy, Joel and Tess accept the assignment. The first order of business sees the trio nearly failing right out of the gate, when they encounter an armed guard (Max Montesi) at the QZ perimeter. The guard just happens to be someone Joel had previously bribed with illicit supplies of drugs. Unfortunately, the guard isn’t in a slack-cutting mood at the moment, and Joel is forced to violently beat him to death, before the trio can begin their quest. The final shot of the pilot sees a radio playing an ambiguous, resistance-coded message to no one listening…
Note: Pedro Pascal playing yet another bitter, hard-bitten gun-for-fire taking charge of a special kid’s safety will either work as cheeky homage or tired retread, depending on how it lands with a given audience. I will say this for the very talented Pascal; he apparently has no damns to give for fear of typecasting…
Summing It Up
Just to be clear, “The Last of Us” is very well-acted, and very well-produced. In every measurable sense, this has the potential to be a solid quest series. However, I just feel as though I’ve seen all of it before, without ever touching the video game it’s based upon. After quitting “The Walking Dead” franchise in 2017 (the TV series & graphic novels), I just don’t think I have the stamina to endure yet another George Romeroesque post-apocalypse zombie TV series.
Zombie scenarios can be great fun for horror movie nights, but staying with them in a weekly series becomes emotionally taxing. Take the survivalist movement, for example; people who hoard food, weapons, etc. in concrete shelters, living in perpetual readiness for an apocalypse that may never come. Personally, if I found myself in such a desolate, hopeless situation? I would want to check out of it, as soon as possible. To go that long without a flushable toilet, working refrigeration, or wi-fi—let alone defend myself against armies of flesh-eating ghouls—and my will to continue would rapidly wane. That more or less sums up my personal willpower for this well-crafted, tough nut of a TV series, I’m afraid.
To those who do have the stamina for “The Last of Us”? Bon appétit. I’m sure you’ll find much to enjoy with this finely acted, well-produced series, particularly if you’re a newbie to the well-trod zombie apocalypse genre. Unfortunately, one of the little bugs one gets in reaching my age is that nagging sense you’ve seen it all before.
Been there, done that; got the Quarantine Zone t-shirt…
Where To Watch.
“The Last of Us” is available to watch on HBO, and to stream on HBOMax. As of this writing, only the pilot has been released, with the remaining eight episodes slated for release each week.