Cordyceps and cannibals:  THE LAST OF US (2023)

The Last of Us is an HBO original TV series which was released to streaming on January 15, 2023. It was adapted by Neil Druckmann, the writer and creative director of the video game of the same name, and Craig Mazin, the showrunner of the highly acclaimed miniseries Chernobyl.

The show opens with a panel discussion; a couple of epidemiologists arguing about what sort of organism will wipe out humanity. Turns out bacteria and viruses can be terrible, but we always beat them. But fungi – one of them, cordyceps, can take over the brain, make you a slave, dedicated to one thing – spreading its spores to everyone else. Apparently, part of this fungal strategy is to kill other people and eat bits of their bodies, a lot like, y’know, zombies!

Some of this is factual – the fungus quoted, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, is sometimes called the “zombie ant fungus” because it takes over the bodies of ants and forces them to climb to a high place and wait for spores to sprout from their heads, to be spread by the wind.

That’s one smart fungus but, as the epidemiologist says, fungus cannot live at human body temperature. Unless of course they are forced to evolve heat-tolerant forms – if, for example, hypothetically, the planet started warming. Yes, we’re talking yet another side-effect of the global warming caused by our voracious consumption of the resources of the planet. Human cannibalism of Mother Earth.

The good news is that Scientific American says there is zero chance of Ophiocordyceps surviving in our warm bodies and taking over our brains. The bad news is that there are plenty of other new strains developing, including Candida auris, which has spread to fifty countries so far and there are no drugs that treat it effectively. It won’t turn us into flesh-eating zombies, but it can do lots of other bad stuff.

From the cranky 1960s epidemiologists we jump forward to 2003, when the fungus suddenly takes hold. The nice, senile old lady next door starts eating her family, and our protagonist, Joel (Pedro Pascal from Game of Thrones and Mandalorian) tries to escape the city with his brother and daughter, as civilisation collapses around their ears. I won’t tell you how that turns out, in case you are planning to watch it (or play the game), but the plot then jumps twenty years to 2023, a terrible year, in which people live in quarantine zones under martial law, which provides the gallows for anyone who tries to escape, or to break in.

The authoritarian government is at war with the infected, but also with a rebel group called Fireflies. The gallows, the walls, the restrictions seem perhaps a comment on the COVID lockdowns that took place only a little before this series was made, but whether in favour or against is not clear. In a pandemic, no one knows what to do, but everyone has an opinion, and whatever course is chosen will likely be seen as either ineptitude or oppression. The fungus is not COVID, which is a virus but, like COVID and other pandemics, it has the effect of causing everyone to be at the throats of everyone else. In this case, literally.

So in 2023, Joel, has a nice steady job (gig economy, but still earning a bit, and trading drugs as a side-hustle), burning corpses and cleaning sewers, neither of which tasks seem likely to become obsolete any time soon. But he’s a professional smuggler, and finds himself transporting a young girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey, also from Game of Thrones) across the country. Ellie is valuable cargo – she is apparently immune from the fungus, and lots of people would love to cut her up and find out why and how. Heading cross-country does not (just) mean finding affordable gas (or solar chargers?), food and weapons (the basis for most games), but also has problems since the areas outside the quarantine zones are full of “the infected” (what the show calls the zombies) as well as raiders and slavers. Well, it’s based on a computer game, so there are sure to be obstacles.

The question of nomenclature keeps coming up in reviews. Assuming “zombie” can be defined clearly, many reviews argue that these dudes are not zombies because they are not ‘undead’, which seems to be a prerequisite for graduating to zombiehood. In fact, Eben Bolter, the cinematographer who shot four episodes of the first season, said that the term “zombie” (AKA the “Z-word”) was strictly forbidden on set. To me, it seems to be splitting hairs – the “infected” twitch like zombies, kill like zombies, eat (other people) like zombies. If it walks like a zombie, attacks like a zombie, and eats like a zombie, to me it’s a zombie, even if it doesn’t smell like one. What never became clear to me was why these particular zombies, their minds controlled by the fungus, insisted on killing and eating people (there is a good discussion of this on Reddit). Most parasitic organisms keep their hosts alive, because when the body dies, so do they. But I guess with billions of people alive (or not undead) in the twenty years of the fungus, eating a few can be understood. Even a zombie (infected) has to eat.

There are plenty of films and TV shows about people turning into cannibal zombies through some external threat. 28 Days Later showed a virus that was developed in a laboratory (London, not Wuhan) that turned people into rage-filled consumers. Doghouse showed all the women of a small English village turning into mindless zombies through a virus that was being tested by the military for germ warfare. Drive In from American Horror Stories suggested that just seeing a movie with the right subliminal suggestions could do it.

Then there’s The Girl with All the Gifts, in which a fungus (cordyceps, the same one as Last of Us) takes over infected humans, turns them into mindless zombies called “hungries”, and makes their bodies feeding stations for its spores. And yes, there is a young girl who is the main character, who ends up having to face off with the bad guy. Well worth watching if you get a chance. There has been some reasonably polite (for the Internet) debate over which came first, and if either stole the idea from the other. The Girl with All the Gifts was released in 2016, obviously well before the TV series of TLOA. But the game came out in 2013. But the book TGWATG was based on a short story by M.R.Carey called Iphigenia in Aulis, which was published in 2012 as part of a short-story collection called An Apple for the Creature.

Maybe it was just coincidence – the zeitgeist of the time. Innovations like 3D printing of body parts and cloning of stem cells were shaking faith in the anthropocentric division of the world into nature/culture and animal/human. Out of this fog of indistinction came two stories of cultural collapse and redemption through nature, their central characters young girls (Ellie and Melanie) who were both vulnerable but strong, warriors, hunters and protectors like Artemis, the Greek goddess at the centre of the myth of Iphigenia in Aulis. With nature fighting back in the form of climate change, perhaps our cultural consciousness recalled Artemis to lead us out of the mess. In the shape of Ellie and Melanie.

The word “zombie”, like the word “cannibal”, comes from the invasion, genocide and cultural obliteration of the nations colonised by the Europeans. Roger Luckhurst’s excellent review of the zombie trope points out that the slave labourers in the cane fields of Haiti were called zombies, but were definitely living humans who were certainly not undead but rather exhausted by endless toil, and perhaps shackled so they walked in a shuffling pace. They, like the “infected” of Last of Us, were slaves of an alien master.

Look, the show’s well made, and the reviews keep emphasising that it’s the best adaptation ever made of a computer game, which I think may be damning it with faint praise. The acting is very good, the photography superb and the graphics are terrific, as you would expect in a big-budget show. It is currently scoring 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with most critics praising the suspense, the narrative and the relationships of the main characters, Joel and Ellie. Rebecca Nicholson, the critic from The Guardian, called it

“…one of the finest TV shows you will see this year”

Of course, it is being watched by many gamers who are dedicated to Joel’s story, having lived and died with, or as him, in their hours spent playing the game. They may not be aware of the many, many zombie apocalypse movies and shows that have graced the screen since George Romero introduced us to characters lurching around the graveyard and smashing open windows hoping to find fresh brains in Night of the Living Dead in 1968 (he called them “ghouls” rather than zombies, but that never caught on). The zombie film goes back even further, to The White Zombie (1932), in which Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own, precisely what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve by pouring muriatic acid into the brains of his hoped-for sex slaves.

Storytelling in games is a very different beast to a film or TV show. In games, we have a goal and many obstacles to overcome, crash through or kill. On screen, we have (hopefully) realistic, sympathetic characters who interact, clash, and begin to love. The premise of a game is action, of a film or show, interaction. For a good summary of all the things a gamer might hate about the adaptation to screen, check out Ian Bogost’s review in The Atlantic. He sums up,

“It’s just not interesting to watch an angry man escort an irritable girl across the country amid a cartoonish zombie apocalypse cosplaying a credible global pandemic.”

But most critics felt that the writers had overcome this minefield and turned the characters, particularly Joel and Ellie, into real, sympathetic people.

Like games, a series of discrete episodes, some barely involving Joel and Ellie, take place during their journey across a devastated America. This is how games and TV shows have to be – gamers and bingers have to stop and sleep sometimes (well, maybe not gamers).

Then we get to episode eight, titled “When We Are in Need”, which Belen Edwards of Mashable predicted would “mess you up”. Joel and Ellie meet a cannibal (yes, you are on the right blog, sorry it took us a while to get here). Ellie is seeking penicillin for a wounded Joel, and finds it through a preacher named David (Scott Shepherd) and his off-sider James (Troy Baker, who played Joel in the video game!) who are trying to carry off the carcass of a deer that Ellie wounded. David the cannibal is a preacher; these cannibals are Christian devotees. In the game, they were ‘just’ psychopaths, but the show has added some backstory.

The episode starts with David reading from Revelation 21:1-4, which talks about “a new heaven and a new earth”, in which there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain. Quite a promise for an apocalyptic series. Ellie is not impressed.

The advantage of being religious is that almost anything can be justified with a quote, out of context, from the holy books. David rationalises his attempted rape of Ellie with John 4:18 – “There is no fear in love”. Nice try. The context, trying to rape a young girl in a burning building, is definitely Satanic imagery. David is presented as the devil, because he feeds his flock the only meat available to him. Also because he is a murderer and a rapist, but that doesn’t seem so unusual in post-fungus world.

There’s a lot written about the moral twists and turns in this episode, mostly people being horrified by the cannibalism (although it is the standard operating procedure of the “infected”), and pointing out that only a preacher adept at using (twisting?) the teachings of the Bible could justify the eating of human flesh by his flock. But let’s not forget that Catholic Communion insists that it involves eating the actual body and drinking the actual blood of Christ. The Old Testament also has incidents of cannibalism during the siege of Jerusalem. Yet there is a strange consensus that shooting a living deer, wounding him so he dies later in agony, then eating him, is perfectly acceptable, while eating dead humans, who have probably died from lack of food, is somehow the work of the devil. One website says:

“David and the others are engaging in an unspeakably disgusting practice, and the fact that he’s okay with it demonstrates his moral rot.”

David tells Ellie he does not hate the fungus cordyceps, because it fights and kills for its own preservation. He feels he must do the same, be a strong, even violent leader, to protect his “flock”.

“What does cordyceps do? Is it evil? No. It’s fruitful, it multiplies. It feeds and protects its children, and it secures its future with violence if it must. It loves.”

Do David’s followers know they are eating people? The cold room is full of corpses hung and ready, as Joel discovers when he stumbles in hoping to save Ellie, so it seems probable.

David tells Ellie that he keeps the cannibalism secret, because the followers (or “sheep” as he calls them) are too weak to accept what is necessary. Or perhaps David’s followers didn’t a) know or b) care that the flesh they are eating is from one mammal rather than another. There’s a scene where they all solemnly chow down on plates of what seems obviously to be the meat of the guy Joel killed last episode. Here’s a summary from the Digital Mafia website, which believes that they knew but pretended not to:

“People had turned into animals, but they still wanted to reassure themselves that they had strict regard for what was morally right.”

Killing of deer or rabbits is presented as totally uncontroversial in the show. Yet Ellie shouts at David:

“You’re an animal!”

He replies:

“Well yes, we all are. That’s sorta the point. But what was I supposed to do? Let them starve? These people who put their lives in my hands. Who expect me to keep them safe. Who love me!”

I found the killing of the stag, which I hope was sophisticated computer graphics, far more shocking than the images of hungry people eating a human corpse, which after all is a dead animal who can no longer feel any harm.

Joel and Ellie also kill to survive. Joel killed a member of David’s community in the previous episode, the one who was that night’s main course at David’s diner, and he gratuitously kills two of David’s men after he has tortured them to find out where Ellie had been taken, beats them to death as they beg for their lives. But Joel doesn’t eat the resultant corpses; human life is not sacred in this ruined earth, nor was it ever, only human flesh is sacrosanct. David sees that we are animals, “That’s sorta the point”, and so would consider Joel’s casual disposal of the corpses a shocking waste of good food. If we are happy to eat animals, and humans are animals, I guess he has a point.

The “infected” lost their humanity when they were taken over by the fungus. Joel maintains a thin red line between killing people and eating them. David’s followers have tried to retain their obsolete humanism even though threatened with starvation. David, the teacher turned preacher, sees the hypocrisy of such arbitrary distinctions. When civilisation goes up in smoke, so does its normative ethics. And when you’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and hungry, maybe caring is an anthropocentric luxury that most people cannot afford?

Conversations with a Killer: THE JEFFREY DAHMER TAPES (Netflix 2022)

It’s definitely Dahmer month, with Netflix releasing this second blockbuster series on October 7, less than three weeks after Ryan Murphy’s ten-part series “Monster”.

The massive interest in Jeffrey Dahmer has been simmering since he was arrested in 1991, but it burst into a conflagration on September 21 2022 with the release of Ryan Murphy’s new documentary MONSTER – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. This re-enactment, with Evan Peters playing Dahmer, became number one on the Netflix hit parade immediately. According to The New Yorker, as soon as it was released on September 21st, “Dahmer” became far and away the streaming service’s most-watched title of the week and its biggest-ever series début, despite receiving little advance marketing. Subscribers logged nearly two hundred million hours watching the program in its first week of release—more than three times as many hours as Netflix’s next most popular series. There’s even a walking tour in Milwaukee in the footsteps of Jeffrey Dahmer.

My earlier blogs on the Dahmer movie with Jeremy Renner as the killer, and the documentaries showing the real Jeffrey Dahmer being interviewed for news shows, are getting hundreds of hits each week (thank you!), in this new era of Dahmer-mania.  Family members of Dahmer’s victims are speaking out against the “Monster” series, saying it forces them to relive the traumatic events and personalises Dahmer, and even complaining about a Kesha song from 2010 which mentioned Dahmer. Nevertheless, Netflix has now released (October 7) a new series of Conversations with a Killer, this time using some previously unreleased tape-recorded interviews of Dahmer himself and his defence team, including his lawyer Wendy Patrickus, during his high-profile case. It was her first case, and she said, “I felt like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.” She spent months talking to Dahmer about each victim, preparing a defence which could only be based on an insanity plea, since there was a mountain of evidence against him, and he had already confessed everything to the police. Wendy’s DAHMER TAPES cover 32 hours of conversations held from July to October 1991. These tapes were never previously released – and are the basis of this three-part series.

This three-part true crime documentary is the third in a series from Academy Award nominee Producer/Director Joe Berlinger, whose earlier “Conversations with…” covered The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019) and The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022). Bundy and Gacy were prolific serial killers but, as far as we know, were not cannibals (although an English tabloid suggested Bundy might have had a few mouthfuls).

This is the Netflix summary of the Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes series:

When Milwaukee police entered the apartment of 31-year-old Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991, they weren’t prepared for what they’d find. From a freezer full of human heads to decomposing body parts, the discovery amounted to the grisly personal museum of a sadistic killer. Dahmer quickly confessed to sixteen murders in Wisconsin over the span of four years, plus another murder in Ohio — but the most shocking revelation involved acts of necrophilia and cannibalism…. Why was Dahmer, who had been convicted of sexual assault of a minor in 1988, able to avoid suspicion and detection from police as he stalked Milwaukee’s gay scene for victims, many of whom were people of color?

Like the previous movies and documentaries and even the interviews with Dahmer himself and his family, the question that keeps being raised is why he did these things? Earlier texts concentrate on the psychopathy of the man himself, skirting the politics, while Murphy’s series, and this new documentary, spend more time on the ineptitude and racist privilege that seemingly kept delivering him get-out-of-jail-free cards.

“It [cannibalism] made me feel like they were a permanent part of me.”

This new release sheds much heat but very little new light onto that question. Dahmer has already told interviewers that he just wanted to possess the young men and boys who came to his home under the pretence of taking photos for money, keep them with him, without the complications of building actual reciprocal relationships. He lured them to his apartment, drugged them and then killed them or drilled holes into their skulls and injected muriatic (hydrochloric) acid. He wanted to turn them into zombies, with no will of their own, who would stay with him and be available for sex whenever he wanted. He tells his lawyers all this on the scratchy recordings that assail our ears here. The interviews are accompanied by blurry re-enactments of the prison interviews by actors dressed as Jeff and Wendy, and interspersed with contemporary interviews of the actual journalists, police, lawyers, psychiatrists, friends of the killer and the victims, all noticeably older and still in many cases clearly distressed by their involvement in the case. There are images of his victims, of the saws and drills he used, home movies of him as a (pretty happy and normal) child, as a teen, as a prisoner. There is news footage, from outside the building, of stunned crowds and news reporters doing what they do – repeating the few snippets of information they have, over and over.

But there seems to be a lot more that is alluded to but not fully analysed in both of these new Netflix releases. In flashbacks in the Monster series, and in the “conversations”, we see things like Jeff impaling worms on his hooks with his Dad, saying “ouch!” as they pretend to empathise with the animals’ suffering. We see him as a little boy examining a dead marsupial that, his Dad says, must have crept under the house to escape a predator, despite already having its skull crushed, indicating that brainless (zombie) life is feasible; Dad takes him on road trips to find and then dissect road kill. He tells a wide-eyed Jeff of the biology experiments (Dad was a chemist) in which frogs with most of their brain destroyed will still react to pain stimuli. We see him mock a vegetarian girl in biology class who doesn’t want to dissect a piglet, and later find him torturing small animals including neighbourhood dogs and cats, actions which are strikingly common in the personal histories of serial killers. Dahmer tells the lawyer:

“I didn’t seem to have the normal feelings of empathy.”

Insensitivity to animals (human or otherwise) can snowball. Killing and eating the other has always been the ultimate symbol of domination. Humans have probably done it to enemies for millennia, and psychologists tell us that industrial society since the late nineteenth century has undermined the formation of stable identities through technology-based isolation, mass mediated representations of cultural interactions, the conversion of all human relationships into fiscal transactions and the disintegration of communities. Mass-murderers and particularly cannibals like Dahmer, Fish, Meiwes or Sagawa could not have operated so freely in communities where people more intimately knew their fellow citizens’ daily movements and actions.

But such social and cultural changes affect us all, and we are not all cannibals (at least, not at this historical moment). There is more to it; the borderline pathology formed by modern life has to be ignited into violent action by an often (seemingly minor) inciting incident – Meiwes watched pigs being butchered, Sagawa recalled his uncle, who regularly played cannibalism games. Many cannibals, like many murderers, start their abuse with the objectification of other animals, as did Dahmer. Vincenzo Verzeni, who was arrested in 1871 on suspicion of killing up to twenty women, put his sexual obsession with killing and drinking blood down to the pleasure he had experienced wringing the necks of chickens when he was twelve years old. Jeffrey Dahmer had hidden his sexuality from his disapproving family for so long that he no longer wanted the gay sex that was becoming available in the 1980s – he wanted to sate his appetites without having to satisfy his partners. Sleeping pills, easily obtained due to his work as a night-shift operator at a chocolate factory, meant that he could put them to sleep and do whatever he felt like.

“I could just lay around with them, without feeling pressure to do anything they wanted to do. They wouldn’t make any demands on me. I could just enjoy them the way I wanted to.”

The men he chose were in many cases ready to have casual sex, but that was not enough. He wanted permanent relationships, but only he was to benefit. From drugs, he moved to experiments aimed at creating compliant, subservient zombies. Of course, this didn’t work, so he did the next best thing, killing them, keeping their body parts, eating their flesh so they would be a part of him.

Dahmer had learnt to ignore suffering in his fishing expeditions, at his father’s dissection table, and of course in the kitchen, where we all watch pieces of meat being prepared, our childish minds wrestling with the dawning knowledge that these were the same living, breathing, suffering animals we saw on farms, or whose representations we enjoyed in our toy-boxes or television shows.

One psychiatrist has opined that Dahmer struggled with both borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, and therefore suffered “great confusion about what’s real and what isn’t”. There is some evidence that Dahmer couldn’t live with what he’d done, or couldn’t live without doing it any more, offering to admit to a crime he didn’t commit (the murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh) if it would get him the electric chair in Florida.

The Dahmer legend continues to grow, despite it being over thirty years since his arrest. How unique is his story? The police investigators called for a manifest of missing persons, trying to establish the identities of the remains found in Dahmer’s apartment. In episode 2, the detective says they were getting 300 calls every day from people looking for their lost loved ones, and wondering if they had ended up in Dahmer’s abattoir. Where do all these missing people go? Is it possible that there are more successful cannibals out there, busily eating the evidence, not raising the suspicions of their neighbours, and not getting caught?

In a world where humans routinely and legally do to other sentient beings what Dahmer did to his victims, it may be that the cannibal is just less tolerant of ambiguity, and when taught that the ‘other’ can be casually and ruthlessly collected, kept captive, killed and eaten, he (or occasionally she) just takes that to its logical conclusion. Interestingly, PETA is already getting feedback about that.

This documentary does not offer any revelations to those of us who already know a lot (too much?) about this case. But it lays it all out in sequence, explained by those who were involved – the police, the journalists, the doctors, and most of all Dahmer himself on the tapes. His voice is that of a witness, trying to explain what he does not understand. He killed and ate people not because he was some uncanny monster, but for the same reason anyone eats anything: because he wanted to, and he could. The jury in his case were adamant that Dahmer was sane.

What does it mean, to say that a person is sane, and how is a jury of non-experts to decide that? In episode 2, the forensic psychiatrist for the Defence, Fred Berlin, says:

“If a man who is preoccupied with having sex with corpses, if a man who is drilling holes in the heads of human beings to try to keep them alive in a zombie-like state doesn’t have a psychiatric disorder, then I don’t know what we mean by psychiatric disease. How many people does someone have to eat in Milwaukee before they think you have a mental disease?

Dahmer comes across as the picture of the civilised male subject, fully initiated into the symbolic order. As the Milwaukee journalist who was first to report the case, Jeff Fleming, put it:

“The danger could be someone who looks just like your next door neighbour. He passed on the street as a very normal person. He didn’t look scary.”

Dahmer’s comment:

“My desires were bestial, obviously.”

Or were they just, as Nietzsche said, “Human, all too human”? In the book Enemies, a Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer says:

“…in their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.”

But what we see in factory farms is not the hatred and the wish to exterminate that motivated the Nazis. Animal agriculture corporations often tell us that they “love” their animals, just as Dahmer loved his men and boys, and wanted to enjoy them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in our behaviour to animals, all men are Dahmer.

“The mothers were empty… cored” – THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (Colm McCarthy, 2016)

In an alternative present, or perhaps near future, humanity has been decimated by a fungal disease that turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries“.

At an army base in rural England, a small group of infected children are being studied by biologist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, fatally attractive once more), who considers them less than human, or at least dispensable in her search for a vaccine. A sacrifice for the good of humanity, which is on the brink of extinction.

Despite being “hungries”, compelled by their infected brains to tear any uninfected human apart for food, these children think rationally and feel human emotions. But only one person, their teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), considers them human.

One girl, Melanie (a brilliant performance by thirteen-year-old Sennia Nanua), is inquisitive, imaginative and excels in the classroom to which the children are wheeled each morning, strapped to their chairs to stop them eating the guards and teacher. Through the peephole of her stone cell, Caldwell gives Melanie riddles and even asks her to consider the Quantum Mechanics paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, in which a cat in a sealed box could be either alive or dead, or both, depending on a random state of subatomic particles controlling a potentially lethal radioactive charge. The hungries, strapped to their wheelchairs, polite until they smell flesh, are neither human nor subhuman, or perhaps, like the cat, alive and dead at the same time. Melanie is in a box (or a stone cell) and may be alive or dead, depending on the science; human or inhuman, depending on the politics. Like all of us, her life is in a state of quantum superposition, controlled by random forces over which we have no control. Ask anyone in an ER ward.

The children are kept in cells and only taken out by heavily armed soldiers. Their food is live worms.

Melanie is precociously brilliant and loves her teacher Miss Justineau.

When the base is invaded by hungries, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell and some heavily armed soldiers, some of whom she needs to eat to save Justineau. This causes her human side some ethical issues.

The group agree to take Melanie with them, believing that Caldwell will be cutting her up for a vaccine, but she is forced to wear a mask, like Hannibal Lecter as they try to find a fortified settlement in a world filled with hungries.

Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a respectable 86% although most of the reviewers saw it as a superior entry in the zombie tradition. It’s actually not a zombie movie, although there are very large numbers of rotting people standing around, ready to chase anyone that moves too fast or talks too loud.

But the hungries are not corpses who have risen from the dead like Night of the Living Dead; they are infected by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a real fungus discovered by Wallace in 1859 (the dude who came up with the idea of natural selection at the same time as Darwin). The fungus, which normally affects insects, has in this story mutated to take over the brains of living humans, making them into hungries. Spores from the fungus, or a bite from a hungry, can turn a person into one in a few seconds. If you recall the virus that took over the UK in 28 Days Later and filled the victims with uncontrollable rage, this is an infection (albeit fungal) that fills its victims with voracious appetite. The hungries stand around like rotting statues, unresponsive to anything but the taste, sound, smell or movement of living animals, including humans. Is there a metaphor here for the way we drift through life, only mobilised, often by smart marketing, into sudden bouts of voracious hunger? The hungries are “free” of all the cares and duties of being human – they are only alive when they smell fresh flesh. They live what Kundera calls an “idyllic” existence of constant repetition. Melanie is equally free in her cell – to strap herself into her chair, learn her lessons, and eat her worms at night. Once she is freed, there are all sorts of decisions to be made – practical and ethical ones.

Although the fungus is not a virus like COVID-19, it does eventually kill the hungries to feed on their bodies, in order to grow its fruit body and create spoors.

Caldwell explains that the child hungries, including Melanie, were discovered in a maternity hospital.

“The mothers were there too. They were… empty. Cored. From the inside.”

The embryos were infected through the placenta, and

Melanie and the other children at the base were captured soon after birth and socialised (except for the, you know, growling and biting), but other child hungries have gone feral, and live in urban tribes that hunt and can communicate only in grunts and snarls. Melanie has to establish her authority over them by employing their own violent methods.

The movie (and book on which it is based by Mike Carey, who simultaneously wrote the screenplay) is a bildungsroman, the story of Melanie’s coming of age. Incarcerated since birth, Melanie has a burning desire to understand what she is, how she got that way, and control her own future.

The interviewer on said:

“There’s a visceral, emotional impact to the horror and action of “The Girl with All the Gifts” that resonates because the characters and the world they live in feels real to us.”

We all live in that world, where infections run wild, the authorities are at a loss for solutions, and superspreaders and conspiracy theorists are hungries. This is an intelligent and gripping thriller that asks questions about the nature and ethics of sacrifice. While we are sacrificing front line workers to save oldies (like me) from COVID, what can we say about the sacrifice of the innocent like Melanie?

The favourite word of 2020 was “unprecedented” as an unknown and widely unforeseen virus disrupted all aspects of normal life. Derrida uses the term “arrivant” – an “Other”, an absolute newcomer about whom we know nothing, and who may take monstrous form. Melanie and the hungries, like SARS-CoV-2, are arrivants.

The big question Melanie asks the scientist and the teacher is: what if the arrivants, the child hungries who are symbiotes with the fungus, are a superior race of human? We eat animals we consider lesser beings – why shouldn’t they do the same?

The cannibal apocalypse: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, 1968)

The author John Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1941 that:

“It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die… two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”

Horror depends on our inability to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, and cannibalism adds to the recipe the terror of that death involving our total disappearance, not just our spirit but our bodies, incorporated into the stomach, then the cells and finally the shit of another. We cheer the death of the ‘bad guy’ because we feel at a primal level that his death is required for the continuance of our life. But what if, as Steinbeck says, the evil never dies, and keeps coming back for us?

This I think is the attraction of the zombie, who has become a critical character in our culture since the release of this movie in 1968. An earlier movie, The White Zombie (1932) saw Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own. Those zombies did what they were told, but they did not go out of their way to eat people. That type of compliant, submissive zombie is pretty much what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in what he hoped were non-lethal doses of acid.

George Romero’s genius was to combine the undead with the cannibal to create what in this story is called a “ghoul”. The zombie was still, in 1968, the undead servant of Haitian mythology. In this film, the ghoul, a figure that traditionally hangs out in graveyards and sometimes digs up corpses, becomes those corpses, and so gives birth to what we will ever after call zombies. These zombies are cheaper by the dozen – they have no will, no intelligence, just the force of numbers, and overwhelm the living with their ragged, shuffling weight of numbers.

What raises these dead? We are told by a TV newsreader that a strange phenomenon, perhaps radiation from a space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, is causing the dead to rise from their graves. They are voraciously hungry, but very fussy eaters – their preferred cuisine is living human flesh, although cooked (when a truck explodes) will do. But the horror in this movie is from the “banality of evil” – the things that really haunt our nightmares are not ogres and aliens, but cemeteries at dusk,

Ordinary (ish) looking people trying to get into our car, when we can’t find the keys

Technology that won’t work at times of crisis

And of course the dead. Particularly when they look angry. And hungry!

Romero did not just bring to life the zombie hordes, but also very many cannibal movies owe a debt to him, as do “splatter” movies generally. The simple opening scene of a couple of siblings driving across the desert to visit their father’s grave was later replicated to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. And of course many, many zombie movies and TV shows have followed in the shuffling footsteps of this one. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead.

The story revolves around a group of people sheltering in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, which is under assault by a growing crowd of cannibalistic, undead corpses. The phone doesn’t work, which is annoying, but the radio and even the TV are fine, which is useful as a dramatic device to fill us in on what’s going on.

The radio reports that they are:

“things that look like people but act like animals.”

The horror of this film seems so much greater by their ordinariness (although the low budget may have had something to do with it). Cannibals are often described as acting “like animals”, but of course, we are all animals, great apes, and cannibals are just as likely to be accused of treating their prey “like animals.”  Ordinary people, animals, fall down when shot, but the horror of these undead is their invincibility. It’s hard to kill someone who is dead, and has just risen from the grave. Shoot them in the chest and they fall over and then get up again and keep coming. They can however be shot in the brain or walloped on the head or burnt, so we are not left without hope.

But there are other dynamic binaries – heroism and cowardice, fire and fuel, shelter and intrusion, eater and eaten, and a scene where an infected girl within the boarded up house eats her own parents, and an undead brother returns to eat his sister. In two short scenes, Romero takes Freud’s insistence that cannibalism and incest are the two original prohibitions of mankind, and merges them into incestuous cannibalism. The film comprehensively problematises the narrative of humans vs monsters. We are all hiding in our houses, terrified of the latest headline, and we are also all members of the monster horde.

The protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American hero, which in itself was rare in the sixties. Romero says Jones was chosen just because he gave the best audition, but the dynamic he brings, particularly in the inter-relationship battles inside the house, where he insists on being boss, and of course in the climax, took the film into the heart of darkness that was 1968 America. As the ghouls lurched toward the house, the Vietnam war was raging, students and police were battling on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Party convention, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, and in Paris revolution was in the air.

But it’s not “all right”. The racism issues raised by the film further complicate the dichotomy between human and ghoul; human and, well, inhuman. Because when the authorities arrive, they are basically a vigilante mob killing ghouls with a random collection of guns, and building bonfires to dispose of the corpses. When they see a black man – will they recognise him as a real, live human? Well, no, Ben has made it through the night, surviving the attack of hundreds of the ghouls, only to be shot through the head by a police sharp-shooter as he emerges. The film ends with grainy images of him being pulled from the house with meat-hooks and burnt with the corpses of the again-dead, and the pictures are unmistakably reminiscent of photos taken at lynchings.

The review from the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, sums up the response to the movie at the time. This was written after he had watched the movie in a cinema filled with kids, who had been dropped at the cinema, unaccompanied, for an afternoon of fun scary time.

The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…

The movie has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Chicago Reader summing up:

Over its short, furious course, the picture violates so many strong taboos — cannibalism, incest, necrophilia — that it leaves audiences giddy and hysterical.

Interestingly, the movie was removed from Netflix in Germany, following a written demand from the German Commission for Youth Protection.

“Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the death camps in which millions died. What shocked Arendt was that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann, one of the most pivotal figures in the Holocaust, was a monster, in fact she found him “terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

This is the crucial difference between the early cannibals of Herodotus or Columbus and the ones inside our cities after 1888 (the year of Jack the Ripper). They don’t look that different from us. They are men and women, young and old, dressed and naked. We can no longer tell them for sure from our next-door neighbours.

The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are human but dehumanised. They are dead, but still walking and eating, and the dead and the undead all burn in the same fire. In fact, the ghouls are us, filled with rage at the fact of our mortality, but they don’t look that dissimilar from people you might be standing next to at a political rally.

Virus apocalypse – 28 DAYS LATER (Danny Boyle, 2002)

A highly contagious virus, originating in human exploitation of captive animals, leads to the complete collapse of society. Pretty far-fetched, huh?

Do you remember back in the good old days, let’s say 2019, when “post-apocalyptic” was just a genre, a metaphor, rather than a feature of every evening news bulletin? The Director, Danny Boyle, reveals in his movies glimpses of different worlds, or rather our world, but disfigured by our appetites. In his debut film, Shallow Grave, it was money, in Trainspotting it was heroin, in Steve Jobs it was recognition. In this film, what we consume and vomit out is rage.

Chimp learning rage.

The film starts with a brief explanation of how zoonotic diseases originate; often that happens in a laboratory. In the opening scene, a chimp is tied to a bed and made to watch videos of rage: lynchings, riots, shootings.

The chimps have been infected with an inhibitor that triggers overwhelming rage. It is carried in a virus, and a highly contagious one. When a group of animal liberationists break in to free the tormented primates, the virus is unleashed as well. There is no cure; the infected humans become killing machines.

If they break your skin or their blood enters your bodily fluids, you are then infected too. The cities are evacuated, the affected killed with no warning.

Like the hero of The Day of the Triffids, the protagonist wakes in a hospital. Jim (Cillian Murphy) is a bicycle courier who has been in a coma for 28 days after a run-in with a car.

He wanders the empty streets, and the rest of the movie revolves around his efforts to avoid the infected and find those who are still, well, human. Which means they have slightly less rage.

28 Days Later is a horror thriller, but much more than that. Yes, you will jump when infected people with bright red eyes leap through the window at you, but it also portrays a profound appreciation of loss, particularly when Jim finds his parents, who have suicided, and is informed he is “lucky”. There is also plenty of humour, and some stunning scenes revealing the beauty of a world, how it could be without humans busily killing each other and poisoning nature.

Danny Boyle captures perfectly the imagery of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”

Jim and his survivor friends find a platoon of soldiers who have varying views of the virus. The Sergeant (Stuart McQuarrie) is a Nietzschean, who sees humanity as a temporary blip on the smooth course of evolution:

“So if the infection wipes us out, that is a return to normality.”

But the Major in charge (Christopher Eccleston) is more Hobbesian, and sees us as creatures of the jungle.

“Which to my mind puts us in a state of normality now”.

But what’s “normal”? What occurs around us, or the global scene? Perhaps it is only their country (it’s set in the UK) that is affected and locked down?

Made in 2002, the film seems very prophetic. COVID-19 is not exactly the zombie apocalypse, but the themes of the attack on nature, the unintended consequences of animal exploitation, the distrust of the authorities, the fear of infection and the pain of quarantine make this movie even more timely now.

And it’s not portraying the zombie apocalypse, because the film is not really a zombie movie. Zombies, after all, are dead, or at least undead, but this lot are living, although ravaged by the virus and prone to uncontrollable snarling and biting. Roger Luckhurst, in his cultural history of zombies, states that zombies are

“a contagion, driven by an empty but insatiable hunger to devour the last of the living… the Rapture with rot”.

Zombies are supposed to shuffle along, with bits falling off. There was an uproar when this film came out – zombies that can run! Fast zombies. Or sick cannibals?

I try to limit this blog to authentic cannibals, living humans who eat or otherwise incorporate body parts of other humans, living or dead. Once I start including the undead, well, it becomes a never ending feast – a lot of fun, but out of scope. Maybe when I run out of cannibal films and TV shows – which is looking increasingly unlikely – we can start on zombies.

The thing about zombies is they don’t actually exist (as far as we can determine). Whereas cannibals – oh yes, they are out there. But who are the cannibals – the contagious, the ones who deliberately developed the virus, or the authorities who use it to their political advantage?