The Dead Lands may be the first New Zealand Maori-language action epic to shed a light on the country’s indigenous people, but perhaps how one feels about it comes down to this: if you like this type of movie, you will like this type of movie. Director Toa Fraser and screenwriter Glenn Standring have gone to painstaking lengths to recreate a pre-colonial culture and that goes with the actors speaking the Maori language. The film is angry, brutally violent, and barbaric, but it’s such a long time coming for the simplistic plot to pick up much steam. After a rather dull first half-hour, where the viewer is ready to just put in the towel, The Dead Lands starts to deliver the goods and then goes out with a whimper.
Nearly sixteen-seasons old boy Hongi (James Rolleston), the seemingly weak son of a tribe leader, spots rival Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) desecrating his ancestors’ bones. Once Hongi tells his father, Wirepa launches a treacherous attack on Hongi’s father’s tribe, slaughtering the father and his people with the help from his other brutish, bare-chested tribesmen. Hongi narrowly escapes with his life and then seeks help from “the Warrior” (Lawrence Makoane), a cannibalistic ghost who haunts the so-called Dead Lands.
A bloodthirsty revenge B picture gussied up with an impressive scope, proficient production values, and bloodshed galore, The Dead Lands is little more than what it is. On second thought, the film’s downfall may be that it seems afraid to just be what it is, by aiming to be a personal odyssey with profundity and deeper meaning that it never truly earns. There are so many interminably talky stretches about the code of honor, ancestry, and revenge (or, “repayment,” as it’s referred to as here) that the blood-spewing decapitations just can’t come quick enough. The film reminds of Mel Gibson’s superior Apocalypto, although that 2006 film about the Mayan civilization had a protagonist we could get behind and tension that felt tangible. Lunging to the point can help with pacing, but it’s hard to latch onto anything or anyone from the very get-go. Within the opening ten minutes, Hongi’s father and people are slaughtered before the viewer gets to know any of them or gets a sense of their familial unit. Beyond default that they are human beings, we have no emotional connection to any of these people, so the impact is slight.
All that’s really left is to admire the authentic art direction, the lush cinematography, and the choreography of the gnarly fight sequences. Also, the sight of shirtless, ripped-torsoed men in loincloths wriggling their tongues, swiping pingpong paddle-like weapons and stabbing one another with spikes is an amusing one. It’s just hard to care who lives to get the glory and who dies with their head on a stick. The synth-heavy music score helps with creating urgency and dramatic push, and the mystical elements, as when Hongi speaks with his dead grandmother in a starry celestial land, are strikingly staged. The film is also competently acted, with the performances mostly hitting the same overacted note of crazed, bug-eyed seriousness, and tongue-wriggling camp. In the final analysis, The Dead Lands is well-made on the surface but overly self-serious and ultimately monotonous where it counts. As one of the weapon-wielding tribesmen says to his enemy, “Bravado is pointless. Look where it got you.” Amen.
The Dead Lands is now in select theaters and available on VOD & iTunes.