Don’t tell me how it ends. I’ll be out of town on Sunday, with no plans to see “The Last of Us” finale until I get back.

But if you’ve been watching this HBO zombie apocalypse drama like me, you’re familiar with the journey of Joel and Ellie across the undead landscape in search of something to do with the profound fact that Ellie is immune. She’s been bitten by a zombie yet hasn’t succumbed to the fungal infection that reanimates the dead.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about writing this column is being part of a newsroom again, where conversation focuses on journalism, important matters of the day, as well as zombies and other meaningless stuff.

Except maybe zombies aren’t so meaningless.

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I once wrote in a column for Halloween that one of the things that scared me was the threat of a global pandemic. That was in 2019 and we all know how that turned out: a tragedy beyond what most of us could ever have imagined.

Zombies are the reigning champion of pop culture monsters for a simple reason: they are an ever-rotting metaphor for anything bad that we use to give them life.

Max Brooks, the author of the book “World War Z,” did extensive research into the government response to a global pandemic. He wrote 14 years before COVID about a virus that started in China and then swept the world as governments tried various unsuccessful measures to halt it.

But whether it’s the shambling slow zombies of Brooks’ book, the predator-fast zombies of the 2013 Brad Pitt movie adaptation, or rampant Cordyceps, this creature is really about us.

There’s a good bit of cultural whitewashing going on with what we know as zombies. Inspired by Haitian folklore, the original had much to do with the short, brutal life of enslaved laborers in what was then a French colony.

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It morphed into something else after the 1804 revolution, mixing with the island’s Vodou religion. There it persisted through political bedlam, economic blackmail by France, military intervention by the United States and the chaos that continues today.

After two decades of U.S. occupation of the island, zombies staggered into American pop culture in the 1930s. That’s when Bela Lugosi starred in “White Zombie” as a white Vodou master with his own army of reanimated corpses. But our use of them as a social commentary started with George A. Romero’s cult classic, “Night of the Living Dead.”

Rick Hutzell: Everyone in Annapolis wants more access to the Chesapeake Bay, right? Wrong.

I saw this movie in college, a decade after its 1968 release. It’s pretty gruesome by the standards of the time, and what I saw through my fingers is still seared into my very not-undead brain.

Released the same year as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, though, it actually is a take on America tearing itself apart. The hero is Ben, a Black man who survives as all the white characters trapped with him in a Pennsylvania farmhouse are devoured by flesh-eating ghouls outside.

Well, he survives until white sheriff’s deputies arrive to kill the zombies and shoot him as well. Not subtle, but, hey, it was 55 years ago.

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It wasn’t until a decade later and the sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” that Romero actually used the word zombies. From there, however, the zombie was off and running, or shambling, whichever you prefer.

You can track all that followed right up to the premiere of the television series “The Walking Dead” on the AMC network in 2010 and the 2013 release of the video game “The Last of Us,” the inspiration for the HBO series.

Enough history. I have to pause again and connect this to Annapolis. That’s my job, right? I can write about anything as long as I’m looking through the lens of this small city on the Chesapeake Bay.

So, what’s the connection?

I could tell you that the The Zombies, an English band formed in 1962, refuse to die so much that they’re returning to Annapolis for the second year in a row in June. The concert features original members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent.

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Or I could mention that “Redneck Zombies,” a 1989 comedy about moonshine that turns people into tobacco-chewing, flesh-eating mutants, was partly filmed in Annapolis.

And I would be remiss not to tell you about the 2013 exercise in Daniel Roche’s computer science class at the Naval Academy involving a zombie outbreak in downtown Annapolis, an out-of-service ambulance and a drink that promised a cure.

I really thought that all this zombie business was finished by “The Walking Dead,” a comic book adaptation that finally decomposed last year. My son got me to watch it, and I kept on watching long after he moved on to other things. Like a lot of TV series, it was a zombie still moving long after it was brain-dead. I stopped watching seasons before the finale.

To me, then, “The Last of Us” was a surprise. I thought at first this was an early nostalgia hook for my son’s video game generation.

What I found, though, was a series of stories about survival, loss, love, revenge, guilt, the capacity for violence and fear of failure. The zombies, which thankfully don’t show up all that often, are just the canvas.

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Joel is broken by his failure to save his daughter, Sarah, in the early days of the zombie apocalypse. As the series continues, he becomes increasingly paralyzed by his fear that he will fail Ellie, too.

Ellie is a messiah figure, whose immunity holds the promise of life beyond the symbol of death represented by the zombies. Like all good messiahs, she’s not really aware of herself until the end of her journey.

All of this fits into one of the oldest of story arcs, the quest. Ellie and Joel are on a journey toward a goal, getting the fact of her immunity to someone in a group called Fireflies who can do something about it.

How does it turn out? You’ll know before I do.

But just as in all good zombie fiction, the story isn’t really about the zombies. It’s about the humans running from them.

“The Walking Dead” of television were the human survivors, not the zombies. Zombies bring out the best and the worst in the protagonists.

That’s why they continue to unlive. As a fictional device, they have some internal rules ― they can only be killed by catastrophic brain injury ― open to reinterpretation. A tragedy rooted in the American horror story of slavery, they have power over our imaginations stronger than the European Romantic figures of Mary Shelley’s monster or Bram Stoker’s vampires.

What comes after Sunday? It’s Hollywood, so of course there will be a second season.

Because the zombie cannot die. You just change out the humans.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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