While I get to work on something important, recover from illness and go on holiday, I’ve prepared something a little bit different.
Whether it’s in a game, a film, or anything else, if you’re using a classic or iconic myth, legend or monster, you’re almost expected to bring something original to it. If you’re creating a new superhero, how is yours going to stand out from the already enormous crowd? How do you plan to tell the same tale over again without everyone feeling like they’ve seen it before a thousand times?
Thinking on such things is a fantastic exercise in creative thought, and it can really help keep those parts of your brain active that might be going dull in your day-job. Unless you have a day-job in which that part of your brain is constantly active, in which case talk to me.
Moving on, I present to you an exercise in redoing what’s been done quite literally to death and coming out with something different in the process.
The walking, shambling, fleshy dead. Or perhaps perfectly normal living people with massively impeded higher function, or perhaps not humans at all. Considering how well deviated the “typical” zombie in modern media is from the original voodoo reanimated slave, not only that but there are so many different interpretations in the rapidly expanding mythology.
Practically anything can create a zombie. It of course began with magic, voodoo, necromancers, or demonic power as in the Evil Dead. Now at their core they won’t change the look and feel of a zombie, unless the necromancer, voodoo priest or demon has a particular flair. Suppose zombies carved in runes from the rituals used to resurrect them; perhaps they glow, this is magic after all. Or suppose demonic animation causes the body to smoulder and smoke, or the bodies grow very obvious strings leading back to the diabolical puppeteer.
Modern zombies are often created by parasites like the T-Virus (Resident Evil), or cordyceps the fungus (The Last of Us). More often than not the hosts in these circumstances aren’t dead, but have lost all the higher brain powers and given into aggression, in the case of cordyceps as a means of spreading itself. It gives the zombie all the traditional “properties” of the monster, ignorant of its’ own injuries, unintelligent, and bloodthirsty.
Weirder sciences include mind control (Serenity) or alien parasites that are a little more obvious than viruses (Half Life), or perhaps full-body alien replicas (Invasion of the Bodysnatchers).
Frankenstein’s monster had similar attributes to the common or garden zombie. Though capable of intelligent thoughts at times, rage would drive it to reckless and aggressive outbursts. Unique amongst zombie-like undead, the monster was stitched together and shocked to life. Various redesigns over the years have seen him powered by chemical chambers, electrical contacts to maintain his charge, or have shown his pieces as so mismatched that they distorted his figure grotesquely.
Zombies were people too!
Zombies usually come in fairly typical styles: Jeans and t-shirt, mid twenties to late fifties, varying forms of decay, you know the score. Maybe you’ll see the occasional hard hat, suit, or high-heels to change things up, but rarely does it get much more interesting than that in the horde. But people can die at any age! Where are the geriatric or octogenarian zombies, wheelchair bound, terrifying in a down-hill pursuit? Where are the ankle biting undead toddlers?
What unique equipment does the former life of a zombie bring to the party? Police officers might have flak armour, athletes may make stronger and faster zombies, and clowns may squeak as they shamble. In a fantasy setting, former wizards may still be infused with magical power, adventurers may still be carrying weapons and armour, they may even still be reaping the benefits of the magical items they died in.
When you’re making your zombies, consider where they come from and how that might change them. Zombies in hotter climes may be a little dried out after a little while, or in frozen temperatures may be missing extremities. If the person lived in the mountains or in a forest would they be able to climb better? Would ocean fairing people create zombies faster in water than others further inland, or just bloated bodies covered in barnacles that emerge at low tide to devour the living?
In many cases, the bite of the infected is enough to kill a living host (with varying speed according to narrative importance). However, in comics/shows like the Walking Dead, the living are already infected, and no matter the cause of death, the corpse won’t sit still unless destroyed. In some cases, damage and decay sustained after death can create some particularly interesting individuals. For example, try throwing a few of these into the throng:
- Crushed or pinned: Dragging it’s legs behind it, snagging on rocks and debris, trodden on by the fully (or at least partially) limbed zombies behind it. Or perhaps the poor unfortunate never escaped it’s death scene, and scrabbles for a bite from beneath a tree or girder, or pinned to a wall by a car.
- Victim: A walking crime scene, perhaps you can even work out the murderer from the evidence left behind! Prints on a murder weapon still embedded in the monsters’ back, or trace DNA on the cable wrapped around its’ neck.
- Buried: Ahh, the classic start to any apocalypse, the dead rising from their graves! Bursting from the ground like that has to leave a mark, gravedirt on the clothes, maybe a piece of coffin still stuck into the hands that smashed their way free, or perhaps the worms already made a start on the squishier parts when the end began.
- Destroyed: Animate bits are always fun. Heads that gnash ineffectually, hands that drag themselves along by the finger-tips, even twitching bits of unidentifiable muscle and organ from an explosion or massive collision. Maybe the bits are still burning or smouldering, or perhaps there’s an almost complete body walking around with a rather obvious section missing.
- Drowned: Because nothing’s more rancid than a bloated body that absorbs attacks like a meringue, or a cannibalistic jelly. Maybe they’re still stuck at the bottom of a pool, or walking around tortoise-like with a bathtub on their back.
Whoever said zombies were boring, bland and overdone was lying to you. Very little thought can create a great deal of variety in your zombies, as well as any other mythological beast, monster or hero. I’m not even halfway done with zombies either…