I've been writing about Zombies for three Halloween posts now. They are about played out but when has that ever stopped me before?
Having said that what new wrinkles can we put on the old zombies (decaying zombies are bad enough, wrinkled ones eeeech) ?
Old School Zombies- Not so much the undead as victims placed under a spell or drugged to be compliant slaves. Perfect for illegal and labor intensive enterprises or cults. They're pretty easy to tell from 'true' zombies. For one thing don't try to eat you or notice you unless you mess with them. For another they yell 'Ow!' when you shoot them. Though you are aiming for the head aren't you? So they might not get a chance to yell anything.
Networking- They aren't stupid in a group. The zombies are not truly individuals. They care nothing for their personal safety or comfort. Taken alone or in small groups they are about as smart as small rodents. But let their numbers grow and their brains begin to link up, like a necromantic wifi. Put simply in a group they begin to figure things out: doors, keys, guns ...
Empathy- Zombies feel your emotions. They can tell what you're feeling, they know what scares you and play on that. A person with sufficient emotional control might be invisible to zombies. Optionally they feed on fear becoming stronger and more durable.
Possessed- One zombie in a hundred, or a thousand has human intelligence and memories. This emperor zed is somewhat aware of his subjects and with concentration can possess individuals to wreak sabotage or assassinate key humans.
Zombie Agents- Well not really. An implant or drug that creates zombies or a reasonable facsimile might be placed in a large number of sleeper agents who are then triggered at once to cause hysteria and panic before an attack or other military operation.
On/Off Switch- Taken with the zombie agents wrinkle, what if after triggering a zombie episode the technique can be reversed returnig the zombie to normal. How is that going to sit with the agents?
Robot Zombie- Why should organic life have all the fun? Robots with the zombie virus will attempt to tear other machines apart, using the parts to upgrade themselves. In a pinch they use organics.
Mycoids- The zombie virus is spread not by bites or bodily fluids but by airborne spores. An old ripe zombie that is struck will explode in a cloud of infectious particles.
Atomic Zombies- shambling towards you, glowing faintly. Perhaps they are animated by autotrophs evolved to absorb radiation or nanotech. they won't feed on you but they are heading for the fusion power plant and heaven help the crew on a ship with an Orion drive if there's an outbreak.
Meme Zombies- An alien idea or concept can warp the human mind reducing the victims to mindless shells repeating the dangerous phrase over and over.
Thrill Kill Zombies- For the ultra rich and ultra disturbed. Take a pill or shot. Become a zombie for a weekend. Chase people. Eat them (optional). Sign many waivers. What happens when the characters' ship breaks down on a world set up for such games? Shooting a bunch of stinking biters who turn out to be bored CEOs, nobility and millionaires is always good for a laugh.
Requiem- A cure may be possible for some of these zombies. Drugs, cyber implants or psionic intervention are all possible cures. The question then becomes one of morality vs. survival. Can you afford to capture and cure the undead? What happens when it's a loved one or a patron or someone with information you desperately need? Perhaps the characters can be hired as zombie wranglers. Perhaps the cure is lifelong for a chronic condition. Perhaps the characters are carrying a shipment of cures to a 'zombie containment camp'. Perhaps the cures are watered down or expired.
As a final note: just because a person might know the biological causes of zombification doesn't mean it isn't scary. Knowing an earthquake is due to tectonic horseplay doesn't make it any less deadly or frightening. The ideas of losing who you are or being consumed are pretty strong stuff.