Posted on June 5, 2018

Cargo and the Rise of the Fungal Zombie

Guest Post

The new zombie film just released on Netflix, Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo (2017) showcases a new kind of zombie–the fungal zombie–and ushers in a whole new kind of horror.

I have to start by saying that I was never really afraid of zombies as a kid. Even today, when I re-watch movies featuring a bunch of shambling corpses, or when I break out the first Resident Evil games to get away from work, it is never the hordes of infected or the walking dead that scare me. For me, they have always been collateral monsters, byproducts of a deep-seated flaw in the living subjects that flee them. In fact, the humans in these films are what terrified me—they are brutal, cold, and animalistic. Which, I guess, is the point.

However, within the past five years, I’ve seen an evolution in zombie film and videogames. No longer are the zombies signifying elements of our humanity let wild, but rather are showcasing a whole new type of non-human sentience: a collective intelligence that can plan, navigate, and communicate much like we do, but without the need of complex technology. I mean, of course, fungi.[i]

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Some genetic history: at first the origin myth of the cinematic zombie was squared on the nuclear bomb and the terror of the Cold War, then it was the ultraviolence and non-discriminating tendencies of a man-made virus (post 9/11) let loose by eco-terrorists (28 Days/Weeks Later), a mysterious patient-zero narrative (Dawn of the Dead), or even the capitalist-driven biopharmaceutical company allowing safety to lapse in the name of advancement (Resident Evil franchise). Yet, I always rooted for the monsters—they had, after all, become zombies because of our human failings. If it’s time to get munched by a zombie, then I guess we did something (inadvertently or not) to deserve it.  But now, I’ll freely admit, I am anxious about such creatures.

In films like Netflix’s Cargo (2018) and the Girl with All the Gifts (2016), and videogames like The Last of Us (20013) and Resident Evil 7 (2017), a new breed of walking dead/infected have taken hold of our collective consciousness: fungal-zombies. No longer content on munching our flesh, seeking our brains, or rising from the grave, these zombies signify that the non-human can invade, take-over, and evolve beyond us. Such spore-driven zombies are not just walking biohazards, or humans altered by radiation, voodoo, or a virus, but rather are non-human creatures living off their human hosts by fundamentally altering their behavior. The fungal zombie challenges us to reconcile an infected that is subverted by a microscopic invader. What scares us about this newer zombie is that its existence is an ever-present reminder that we may not hold supremacy in the order of things; a collection of sentient spores may be able to outlive and outthink the human animal.

To be clear, such a vector for a zombie plague is not just a product of fantasy—certain species of fungi are known to infect and integrate into a host’s body, causing the host to alter their behavior in order for the parasitic-fungus to reproduce. Aptly named the zombie fungus in popular media, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a species of fungus that mostly infects insects like ants. When infecting the ant, the spores of the fungus embed in the host’s central nervous system and cause the ant to leave its colony, climb to a certain height, and latch itself with its jaws to the underside of a leaf. From there, the host dies and the fungus sprouts out of the carapace to spore; the terrifying cycle continues.

Ant infected with fungus

Indeed, it is the cordyceps species that gave inspiration to The Last of Us creators and directors, Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann. The monsters, Clickers and Stalkers, are humans that have inhaled a cordyceps spore(s) and had it embed in their brain. Plaguing the protagonists throughout the game, the fungal-zombies slowly evolve in a similar pattern to the real-life analog. A host is infected, begins to alter and becomes almost rabid, seeks darkness, develops fungal protrusions that eat away the face and body (Clickers) and eventually die and spore. The goal of the infected is not to consume humans, but to thrive.

A Stalker from The Last of Us

The same can be said of the infected in Resident Evil 7. Here the bio-weapon, Eveline, infects the Bakers and the protagonists to not only save herself from destruction, but to also create a family. Infected by Eveline’s spores, the Bakers are altered into insectoid, eldritch, and/or psychopathic monsters—they are made not quite human by Eveline’s black mold tendrils. Around the estate are failed infected bodies overtly dubbed the Molded by the game’s lore. These are humans who succumbed completely to the infecting spores, losing all sense of self and, instead, become monstrous black hulking masses of mold. Yet the behavior is the same: protect and reproduce.

The Molded from Resident Evil 7

One key difference between these spore-driven zombies and their brain-hungry cousins is the desire to survive being placed above their terrorizing of humans. Much like Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the infected organisms shamble away in order to reproduce and to create more fungal-zombies—their desire is not to munch, but rather to spore. In Netflix’s latest zombie-film, Cargo, we watch as an often-bumbling Andy (Martin Freeman) slowly succumbs to his infection. Oozing a yellow and frothy-like substance from his eyes and mouth, Andy immediately follows suit as Cargo follows the typical pattern of infection: dig a hole and hide your head. Much like the victims of the real-life zombie fungus, Cargo’s infected change and not merely to amplify the host’s behavior.

Kay, post infection, from Cargo

So why such a turn to fungal zombies? What, after all, is scary about something that grows in tub grout? Dylan Trigg argues that the terror of such monsters forces the subject (the host) to be removed from the object (their body). Describing the horror of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Trigg highlights that, by witnessing the human body within a mass of inhuman monstrosity, we are anxious not because the Thing is happening in a space where “real life takes place,” but rather where “life is composed and duplicated.”[ii] In other words, the horror of the Thing is not that it invaded our space, but rather that it is actively created within the human body.

Unlike a virus that creates an infected body whose violence is a symptom of infection, the spore-zombie becomes a totally new human-fungal hybrid in front of us. As such we cannot run from the horror of a spore-zombie. Instead we must see a being that was once human and now is something altogether different. Rather than distorting human behavior by reminding us of our own animalistic and violent nature, these new spore-zombies challenge us to actively forget the human and rather look forward to the possibility of non-human-centric alternatives. Such a reality, which does not include us beating back the horde but rather being integrated into a new biological order as a stepping-stone, is what makes fungal-zombies so, well, terrifying.

Kyle Brett is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who studies nineteenth-century American literature and Transatlantic Romanticism. He also is a horror buff and avid weird fiction reader, you can follow him on Twitter @burntcheerios.

If you’re interested in the fungal zombie, it also makes an appearance in Ian Duncan’s novel, Cordyceps:

And in the 2015 Irish horror film, The Hallow, which we review here.


[i] See also “Decision-making without a brain: how an amoeboid organism solves the two-armed bandit” published in The Journal of the Royal Society. DOI:10.1098/rsif.2016.0030

[ii] Trigg, Dylan. The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror. Zero Books, Washington, 2014.

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