The Dead Lands first came to my notice via a couple of articles last year. It caught my attention with it’s unique setting and it’s promise of violent action and strange weapons in one of the few historical settings I hadn’t seen in a film before, New Zealand in the time of the Maori. Then there was nothing, as if it had dropped off the face of the Earth. So imagine my surprise when I looked at the DVD rack at WalMart, (the only place in town that sells them), and there it is. Of course it had to come home with me, and oh yes it was worth the wait.
The plot begins like so many other films, a young man’s tribe is betrayed and slaughtered by rivals. This involves him being framed for desecrating the bones of their ancestors by rather literally taking a dump on them. It seems war is averted but of course that’s not the case. Finding himself the last remaining male of his tribe and the last of his bloodline 16 year old Hongi swears revenge and sets out to kill those responsible. However after his dead grandmother points out he’s more likely to be killed than do the killing he changes course, intending to recruit the legendary monster/warrior who resides in the titular Dead Lands.
The monster turns out to be a beast of a warrior driven mad with shame and guilt after having to kill his family as a matter of honor. He snapped and slaughtered his entire tribe and now lives in isolation hoping for redemption. And he sees his chance in helping Hongi regain his honor and avenge his tribe. He gives the lad a crash course in fighting and then the chase is on.
While it’s basically a revenge oriented action film The Dead Lands pulls in enough elements from the horror film to seriously blur the genre lines. Dead ancestors offer advice, curses befall those who desecrate the dead, and of course, there’s the fact the Maori practiced ritual cannibalism. And the film is rooted in the customs of it’s people, with all the dialogue being in Maori with English subtitles. Thankfully, by making the protagonist a youth coming into manhood and needing things explained to him, the film can explain this culture to the viewer as well. And to the average viewer the Maori culture will be incredibly alien and fascinating adding an extra layer to a fairly stock plot.
The action scenes are fast paced, harsh and brutal. Blood, actual cinematic blood not CGI, sprays everywhere, bones and bodies break under repeated blows and nobody is safe, even characters you expect to survive fall in battle. Indeed the film as a whole has a vicious edge to it. From the desecration of the dead that starts the plot into motion, the assault on Hongi’s village, The Warrior’s fall from honor, Wirepa’s taunting Hongi with his father’s severed head… This is a rough film about rough people and it delivers on that level. Action fans will not be disappointed as there are plenty of fight scenes and since this is the pre-gun era they are all up close and personal melee weapon and fists type fights. And I should add the Maori had some pretty nasty weapons ranging from what looks like a paddle ball paddle but cut from stone and with a razor sharp edge to clubs lined with sharks teeth.
There’s also a good bit of the film given over to the concepts of honor and responsibility to family and tribe. This grounds the film in a sense of reality and makes the supernatural elements involving ancestors and the afterlife feel like a natural part of the plot not something grafted on, and makes the ending so much more powerful.
The Dead Lands is a well done action film with a script that elevates it beyond what one would expect from it. It’s a worthy addition to your movie collection.