How The Last of Us Made Its Zombie Fungus So Much More Real (and Terrifying)

Spoilers ahead.

Certainly one of the freakiest sequences within the premiere episode of HBO’s The Last of Us takes place not when the hordes of mindless infected bodies attack, but when an epidemiologist is asked for his thoughts on pandemics. During a flashback to 1968 within the episode’s opening scene, this epidemiologist—a person named Dr. Neuman—appears calm and calculated during a live talk show, through which he shrugs off any long-term concern over viruses. In his apparently esteemed opinion, viruses have all the time and can all the time attack and kill humans, but humans have the tools to fight them off. Individuals will die. Humanity will prevail.

But fungi, he posits, are one other beast entirely. “Fungi seem harmless enough,” he tells the audience. “Many species know otherwise. Because there are some fungi who seek to not kill but to manage.”


His fellow scientist scoffs; a lot of these fungi are usually not studied contorting humans but, somewhat, ants. Dr. Neuman acquiesces. “True, fungi cannot survive if its host’s internal temperature is over 94 degrees,” he says. “And currently, there are not any reasons for fungi to evolve to give you the chance to resist higher temperatures. But what if that were to vary? What if, for example, the world were to get barely warmer?”

At this point, the alarm bells ought to be ringing for nearly anyone watching at home. The Earth is warming, and never just barely. As Dr. Neuman continues, his words develop into only more ominous. The fungus he cites has no goal apart from to spread, by any means mandatory, ravaging “billions of puppets with poisoned minds.” Then he adds the actual kicker: “And there are not any treatments for this, no preventatives, no cures. They don’t exist. It’s not even possible to make them.”

Even probably the most unflappable viewer could be hard-pressed to look at this without muttering an audible, “Uhh…?” And dear reader, your concern is valid. The Last of Us, based on the 2013 PlayStation game of the identical name, endeavors to feel as real as possible, even when its monsters look more like alien abominations than the mushrooms most of us are accustomed to. That is intentional; an intelligent tactic to straddle the fictional and the factual. But how much real-world worry is just too much? We’re still battling through one pandemic; can we really want to start out fretting over one other? One with no vaccine? Is that this simply Last of Us fear-mongering, or do I want to start out giving portobellos the side-eye?

The reply is yes and no. And that’s the brilliance of the HBO adaptation, which takes the video game’s already well-grounded horror and fills within the shadows barely enough to speculate us, addict us, and terrify us. Ahead, let’s discuss what’s really value getting frightened over.

infected clicker from the last of us

Certainly one of the infected in The Last of Us.


Is cordyceps real?

Yes. In reality, there are many varieties of cordyceps fungi, though Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is the one from which The Last of Us derives its narrative. Game author (and co-creator of the HBO show) Neil Druckmann first encountered the fungus in a 2008 Planet Earth clip, which depicted an ant slowly consumed—and controlled—by insatiable blooms that rained spores onto the ant’s colony. Druckmann inserted a version of this fungus into The Last of Us, which switched the victims from insects to humans via infected crops.

How does this zombie fungus work in real life?

As science author Ed Yong specified by dire detail for a 2017 story in The Atlantic, the fungus plays a unclean game: When it infects an ant, it kills neurons and hijacks the insect’s control panel—without actually piercing the brain. Because it strips the bug’s body of nutrients, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis moves the ant to an elevated plant stem, one with where the temperature and humidity conditions are perfect for fungi to flourish. There, it freezes the ant in place by paralyzing its jaws across the stem, allowing the fungus time to spread through the body, burst through the top, and develop spores, which might then float from above down onto the remainder of the ant’s colony as they trudge by. And so the infection spreads.

Yong describes this effect in chilling prose, citing that Pennsylvania State University entomologist and food security professor David Hughes believes “[the fungus] effectively cuts the ant’s limbs off from its brain and inserts itself in place, releasing chemicals that force the muscles there to contract. If this is true, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its own body. Its brain remains to be in the driving force’s seat, however the fungus has the wheel.”

You may understand why such a real-world effect would make for a delicious zombie story.

Could climate change really create infected fungus zombies just like the ones in The Last of Us? Can cordyceps infect humans? In brief: Should I be frightened?

Evolution of fungi in response to climate change is removed from an unreasonable concern. Dr. Ilan Schwartz, a Duke University School of Medicine infectious diseases specialist, put it this solution to Vulture: “It’s not outlandish, the argument that global warming has increased the thermal tolerance of a fungi. It hasn’t been proven. It’s a hypothesis, and it’s happening on a reasonably slow scale. But it surely is feasible.”

That said, cordyceps cannot currently invade humans, and a few experts consider the fungus is unlikely to make that move any time soon, if ever. In an interview with Forbes, João Araújo, a Latest York Botanical Garden assistant curator of mycology and an authority in insect-associated fungi, told Forbes it’s “most unlikely” cordyceps could take over human bodies in the identical manner as insects. Hughes, in his own Forbes interview, echoed these thoughts, adding that cordyceps infecting humans is “not that fanciful” but that cordyceps controlling humans, as witnessed in The Last of Us, isn’t likely something to fret about.

In a separate interview from 2019, Hughes—who consulted on the unique The Last of Us game—explained that fungi are indeed a danger to humans, citing that 1.3 million people die every 12 months attributable to fungal diseases. But Ophiocordyceps “jumping from ants to humans after which onward [to other people]…that probably requires too many [improbable] circumstances to occur.”

The Last of Us director Craig Mazin isn’t too concerned concerning the fungus either. “It’s real—it’s real to the extent that every part [Dr. Neuman] says that fungus do, they do,” Mazin told The Hollywood Reporter in January. “They usually currently do it and have been doing it endlessly. There are some remarkable documentaries which you can watch which can be quite terrifying. Now his warning—what in the event that they evolve and get into us?—from a purely scientific perspective, would they do exactly to us what they do to ants? I don’t think so. I doubt it.”

Final verdict: Cordyceps as a serious threat to humans—and their bodily autonomy—isn’t outright inconceivable, nevertheless it is improbable. Still, those monsters in your screen are yet one more good reminder of climate motion’s importance.

dead ant because of cordyceps fungus, from indonesian new guinea

An ant infected with cordyceps fungi.

Reza Saputra//Getty Images

In theory, is Dr. Neuman correct? There can be no cure for an outbreak just like the one in The Last of Us?

Here, we’re moving into tricky speculative territory—nevertheless it’s also a part of what makes The Last of Us adaptation so good. The complete plot hinges on a young girl named Ellie, who’s supposedly proof against the results of cordyceps regardless of her recent infection. After sustaining a zombie bite—which must have “turned” her inside a matter of hours—she retains her humanity and sprouts no stalks or fungal blooms. As such, she could be the long-awaited miracle vaccine developers must create a cure.

So why, then, did the show creators include Dr. Neuman’s warning initially of the series? Are there really, as he says, “no treatments for this”? And if we already know Ellie’s mission is in vain, why spend money on it in any respect?

For one thing, Dr. Neuman might be flawed. An outbreak like this has, blessedly, never happened in humans, and there may be evidence of other species “domesticating” cordyceps, employing it as a biological friend somewhat than a foe.

But he is also right. As Dr. Schwartz told Vulture, fungi are more closely related to humans than they’re bacteria that cause infections; in other words, their “cell machinery is similar as ours.” That makes antifungals way more difficult to develop than antibacterials, as antifungals need to focus on fungal cells without also hurting human cells. This might be the problem Dr. Neuman is citing throughout the talk show.

We’ll must see more episodes to totally understand where The Last of Us lore and science diverge, and what specific worries Dr. Neuman implied in his speech. However the inclusion of this dialogue sets up all the thesis of the show (and the sport). That is the moral query: What do you fight for when the result’s undetermined? What’s value more, the cure or the girl? And if the reply isn’t clear, who gets to determine? With Dr. Neuman’s words, the series forces viewers to think through a terrifying prospect: not that of losing control, but of getting it. What happens when you’re confronted with the chance that your efforts are futile, that you’ll lose, and you could endure anyway? In that environment, what type of person would you develop into?

Headshot of Lauren Puckett-Pope

Associate Editor

Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion. 

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