Has anyone ever heard of the 2014 New Zealand film The Dead Lands? It was written by Glenn Standing, directed by Toa Fraser, and was selected as New Zealand’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards (it didn’t get it). Well, the writer of the film decided he wanted to explore the story further and adapted it into a TV series for Shudder.
So far, The Dead Lands has gotten more promotion than any other Shudder series I’ve seen and it’s almost all been positive. However, I myself have not impressed. It certainly has potential, loads of it in fact, but the delivery needs some work. Set in ancient Maori times, The Dead Lands focuses on a warrior named Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka) and a young tribeswoman, Mehe (Darneen Christian) who pair up on a quest to stop an evil that’s overtaking their lands.
Unique but nothing original
Let me start off by saying what I like about The Dead Lands because I hate “dissing” films or series. A lot of work goes into them and they all try their best, two facts that are clear in this case. The Dead Lands is executed with a delicate mix of primal human survival and straight-up bloody violence. For a horror show, it’s pretty good. However, there are one too many flaws weighing it down.
The subject matter is what’s unique here, but that’s about it. At its core is the Maori people. It’s essentially a zombie series set within Ancient Maori legends and customs, something that should be incredibly original but outside of the supernatural elements, it’s like any other “save the world” series. The biggest flaw is the pacing, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The characters feel as if they came off a checklist; there’s the independent tough girl, the redeemed sinner, a group of skeptics, and the guy who is basically the Governor from The Walking Dead. I found it hard to get invested with any of them, especially Waka. The guy reminds me of Vin Diesel in The Pacifier.
The series tries hard to sell him as some ultrapowerful warrior. If I wasn’t told how tough he was all the time I’d assume he was just an average guy. The opening scene is him at the heart of a massacre as a narrating woman (Mehe) describes his legendary bloodthirsty nature. Then, just seconds after that, someone sneaks up from behind and kills him.
I guess hearing some guy walk through the bushes isn’t a requirement for being the world’s greatest warrior. Waka’s death is what starts the series. He wakes in the afterlife but is denied entry to join his ancestors on account of his past sins. He’s informed that there is still time for redemption, and is immediately back, landing headfirst into a zombie apocalypse.
We later learn that something has broken the world and the veil between the living and the dead has fractured, forcing anyone who dies to reenter their body and resume “life” as a walking corpse.
Despite being the headliner, Waka is not the star. The real star Mehe. A young tribeswoman who goes off in search of Waka after her village is attacked by the dead. These two are the best part of the series, but even they are damaged by the rough pacing of the first episode.
These two characters, who are the heart of the series, bond way too quickly. Their friendship develops before the end of Episode 1. They meet, try to kill each other, and then, BOOM! they’re inseparable. Even while they’re still trying to maintain the illusion that they’re just frienemies.
I understand the desire to get the story going. To move the characters past the intro phase as fast as possible but I felt that it cheapened the intimacy of their relationship. I wished we got to see it develop over time.
Mehe and Wka are the heart of the series, watching them interact is the best part. The rest is all entertaining, but it’s nothing that left me excited for the next episode.
The Dead Lands is one of those shows that needs to build up before it can really go anywhere. Episodes 1 and 2 were used to get most of that out of the way. We’ve been introduced to everybody and know what’s going on, now its time for the good stuff. Maybe I will tune in for Episode 3.(3 / 5)
All photos are property of Shudder/AMC and General Film Corporation.