Is ‘The Last of Us’ zombie fungus real?

Fact or fiction?


Art by Anika Ravilla

“The Last of Us” has infected the hearts of millions of viewers, earning the title of the greatest video game adaptation ever. The HBO sensation follows the story of Joel (Pedro Pascal) as he is tasked with taking 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the post-apocalyptic United States. Along the journey, they will discover the meaning of trust, friendship and love while simultaneously battling infected zombies, corrupt government organizations and rebellious civilian populations.

On Sep. 26, 2003, also known as “Outbreak Day,” the fictional world was ravaged by a devastating fungal pandemic causing immediate chaos and destruction. In a matter of days, the world was reduced to ruins and more than half the world’s population had become infected. However, we have nothing to worry about because it’s all fictional… right?

Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, director and creative director of the video game, shared that they took inspiration from real life. Specifically, the game was influenced by an episode of BBC’s Jungle where biologist David Attenborough encounters manipulating fungi.

“These bullet ants are showing some worrying symptoms,” said Attenborough in the episode. “Spores from a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps have infiltrated their bodies and their minds.”

The real-life fungus depicted in the show is called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, otherwise known as Codryceps or zombie-ant fungus. Different mutations of the fungi can infect all types of insects, but the original variant prefers ants and spiders as host bodies.

“That was our jumping-off point,” said Straley in a 2013 interview with Gamesbeat. “We wanted that contrast between the elegance and the delicacy versus the pure anguish, pain, and disgust of being controlled by a parasite.”

The show opens in 1968 when a fictional epidemiologist, Dr. Neuman, shares the probability of a global pandemic on a talk show. Neuman voices his fear of the potentially devastating impact of fungus, and how its impact would be more dangerous than any bacteria or viruses. 

“True, fungi cannot survive if its host’s internal temperature is over 94 degrees,” said Neuman. “Currently, there are no reasons for fungi to evolve to withstand higher temperatures. But what if that were to change? What if, for instance, the world were to get slightly warmer?”

Sound familiar?

According to, the average global temperature has risen by 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1880. However, the rate of warming since 1981 is over twice as fast, rising at a rate of 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. In addition, the 10 warmest years on record have all been since 2010. 

“97% of climate scientists agree that [the increase in global temperature] is not caused by the variations of the Earth’s orbit, but rather very likely caused by human activities,” said scientist Bill Nye in a video for Natural Geographic. “Modern human activities have increased the release of non-naturally occurring greenhouse gasses because we have stepped up our demand for burning fossil fuels.”

While the likelihood of a global apocalypse that morphs civilians into clickers and bloaters is low, it is not outrageous to think that a fungal-induced epidemic is on the horizon. In fact, it has already begun.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that fungal infections are responsible for more than 75,000 hospitalizations and nearly 9 million outpatient visits each year in the United State alone. Despite the estimated thousands of deaths from fungi, there are currently no CDC-licensed vaccines to prevent fungal infections.

One particular fungus, Candida Auris, was first identified in Japan in 2009 and has since spread to over 30 countries. In 2016, four states had confirmed cases of C.Auris infections; however, by 2022, that number grew to more than half of the United States.

“The world health organization says this is a global threat as well,” said NBC News Senior Medical Correspondent Dr. John Torres. “The problem is it is resistant to common antifungal drugs and it seems to be getting more and more resistant.”

While the real-life Cordyceps fungus has yet to spark an armageddon, the science behind “The Last of Us” outbreak is valid. As the Earth’s temperatures continue to rise at an accelerated rate and with no current vaccines, a pandemic seems inevitable. Moreover, if you ever find yourself stuck in a zombie apocalypse, just remember one thing: When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light.