Raining Blood: Zombies in Pop Culture, Part 3

The Undead Persist

Thought I was done with the undead? Well you’re almost right, as this will be the last piece in my miniseries. I know, I’m sad too.

This time, however, we’re going to take a bit of a different approach to our foul friends. We’re going to examine a small subgroup within the undead umbrella that, in all actual factual reality, isn’t undead. The creatures here are more in line with the term “infected”, as they aren’t actually dead, just really, really angry. And just like Marvel’s jolly green giant in purple pants, you won’t like them when they’re angry.

To clarify, the ghoulish groups we’ll be looking at aren’t zombies, by Romero standards, by Kirkman standards, or basic definition. A zombie as defined in pop culture today is “a fictional undead being created through the reanimation of a human corpse.” The creatures we’re going to see now, the Enraged from Danny Boyle’s seminal 28 Days Later and the Infected in Naughty Dog’s 2013 release The Last of Us, are not actual zombies, but something a little different. These infected creatures are victims of a plague that, implicitly or explicitly, devastates the world population. But these are not humans, either. As aptly stated by Ellie in The Last of Us, “they might still look like people, but that person is not in there any more.” And in my mind, these creatures are much more terrifying than what has come before them.

Bar the door, turn out the lights, and don’t make a sound. The streets belong to the infected.

Not the Most Fun-gi: The Last of Us and the Cordyceps

Taking inspiration from the real-life cordyceps fungus, the plague-like pathogen in The Last of Us operates on a farther reaching and much larger scale than its real world counterpart. While only relegated to insects and small, simple organisms in the real world, the way in which it operates within the game universe is an accurate, if dramatized, depiction of such infection. Mental deterioration, heightened aggression, loss of rational thought processes, and dissolving of the self: traits often correctly assigned to the undead are brilliantly replicated here.

However, one key piece of information that separates these creatures from “true undead” is also the missing parallel to the real-world fungus. The infected in The Last of Us are precisely that: infected. The pathogen doesn’t immediately kill the host, but reduces them to a primal, mindless being akin to a rabid dog. In order to spread the contagion, the infected have to remain alive, while the undead do not. This may be a simple distinction, but it’s this detail that keeps them out of zombie territory. Think more the ghost of a zombie, the original soul that can no longer control the body. The recently infected can see what they’re doing, even understand it somewhat, but are unable to stop it. Until the fungus overtakes the body and kills it, they are painfully, powerlessly alive.

Mad Britannia: 28 Days Later and the Rage Virus

When someone tells you not to do something, it becomes incentive to do the thing anyway. When someone in a labcoat tells you the animals you’re freeing have a highly contagious disease in their bloodstream, that should give you pause. Unfortunately, the activists in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later let the world go mad with their actions.

That’s no turn of phrase, that’s literally the catalyst that dooms all of England. Shame, that.

The breakout outbreak hit did give the audience some new criteria for their undead dictionaries, but it wasn’t “zombie fever”. Even in the opening scene the scientist refers to the disease as a “rage virus”, which displays heightened aggression in subjects. Following that, the first instance of infection doesn’t involve death, but the degenerating mental state of the infected. As the film continues, the audience is told symptoms of the disease, and learns a key piece of information. Although these infected are aggressive, are inhuman, and are savage, they aren’t dead. These creatures, similar to the infected in TLoU, are still living creatures, and don’t require a headshot to be killed. Their humanity is lost, but they are not ever truly the living dead. If anything, they’re a more aggressive version of the Haitian zombie but without a guiding leader.

To take it further, modern zombies consume because it’s in their programming. They don’t need to eat, they just do. It’s one of their more defining and terrifying characteristics that, coupled with their inability to rest, makes them horrifically memorable. However, Boyle’s creatures have been shown to die after extended periods without feeding. They continue to consume life out of survival as much as primal aggression. This, coupled with their distinct not-being-dead-ness, kicks these infected out of the zombie umbrella and into the rain. However, even if they aren’t undead, they’re still extremely dangerous, so stay off the streets. The infected are hunting.

End of it all

So, you know what to look for in an undead enemy. You’re able to figure out what is and isn’t a zombie, and you know how to deal with it. Good! So the next time someone invites you over for a horror movie viewing, you’re more informed and educated. Though these articles may not prove useful in the day-to-day, you never know….

…you never know.

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