In honor of Romero Lives!, the city's month-long George A. Romero tribute, Pittsburgh City Paper presents 31 Days of the Undead, a series of reviews and essays about zombie media. Look for new posts going up every day from now through Oct. 31.
In modern zombie lore, the reason the living suddenly become the walking undead is, for the most part, never really explained. Sometimes it’s blamed on a passing meteor, other times it’s a virus or chemical. But in the insect world, the threat of zombification is real and it’s due to one culprit – a parasitic fungus called cordyceps.
I first became aware of cordyceps because of The Girl with All the Gifts, a zombie horror film based on a book by M. R. Carey. Set in a dystopian future in which most of humanity is wiped out by a fungal infection, the film follows Melanie (played by talented young actress Sennia Nanua), a sweet girl incarcerated in a compound where the militaristic staff treats her like a monster. It’s revealed later that she and other children are being kept there and tested on because of a condition that makes them sort of half-human and half-zombie. When the compound comes under attack by full-on zombies called “hungries,” Melanie and a team, which includes her sympathetic tutor (Gemma Arterton) and an inhumane doctor (Glenn Close), escape to a world where just inhaling could spell doom.
While The Girl with All the Gifts is an original, thoughtful horror film filled with plenty of action, gore, and, surprisingly, heart, it’s the science behind it that stuck with me after the credits rolled. Unlike other zombie movies, in which the monstrous other is seen as sub-human, the film shows that Melanie is part of a more evolved type of human able to survive the airborne spores turning people into hungries.
The concept takes inspiration from Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis, a “zombie fungus” more commonly known as cordyceps. Found predominantly in tropical forests, cordyceps attach to various types of insects and invade their brains and central nervous systems, forcing muscle fibers to spread and atrophy (Penn State University has a whole video on it if you can stomach it).
Once docile enough to control, the cordyceps cause the host to act strangely and seek out humid, well-lit conditions. From there, the cordyceps kills its host by exploding out of it like some kind of tiny Annihilation-esque nightmare (you can watch it happen on one episode of the NatGeo channel series, Hostile Planet). Over the course of a couple weeks, the cordyceps reproduce and are ready to start the terrifying cycle all over again.
As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, there are an estimated 600 species of cordyceps found all over the world. While many studies focus on the effect of the fungus on ants, other insects like beetles and spiders fall victim to cordyceps.
However, while cordyceps are threatening to bugs, they pose no real risk to humans, which means the premise of TheGirl With All the Gifts, as well as the similarly inspired video game The Last of Us, probably won’t happen in real life. If WebMD and other corners of the internet are to be believed, some varieties of cordyceps are even used in traditional Chinese medicine and other human medical treatments.
As much as I enjoyed watching a story based on cordyceps, researching the fungal scourge proved just as, if not more horrifying. A quote most likely misattributed to actor Liam Neeson goes “For all of nature's wonder and beauty, it is also hostile and unpredictable.” In this case, the real horror comes from utter predictability, that of a certain unending cycle of death.
The Girl With All the Gifts is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.