It used to be that history was boring but now with the multitude of action packed historic epics both factual and fictional flooding our screens featuring oceans of corpse ridden battle fields, half naked male model warriors and ancient mumbo-jumbo it turns out that the past was a bloody and brilliant place wherever and whenever you were at the time.
From movies about medieval madness to Ridley Scott’s Biblical special effects barminess to the insane popularity of Game of Thrones to the revitalization of the Viking genre it seems that every chapter of ancient history gets its own film as long as it involves some cool weapons and lots of flying body parts.
Although many of these horrible histories do just seem like cheap cash in’s on the resurgent genres popularity made by hack and slash hacks on a long weekend to Wales with some leftover costumes from the last Am-Dram production in the local church, some of these films far exceed expectation and The Dead Lands is such a film.
Set in pre-colonial New Zealand it follows Hongi (James Rolleston) the son of the leader of a Maori tribe who is desperate to end the years of war between his people and a neighboring tribe. Sadly whilst in negotiations for peace the treacherous Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) who is air to the adjacent lands tricks Hongi’s father into believing his ancestors remains have been desecrated giving him the unfounded stimulus to return in the night with his warriors and butcher all of Hongi’s friends and family.
Accidentally avoiding the massacre when he is knocked unconscious Hongi returns the next day to the weeping women of his tribe mourning over their beloved’s bodies and cursing the 16 year old for not dying a warrior’s death with his father whose head Wirepa and his men have taken with them in victory.
Vowing to avenge his people Hongi heads off following the evil band who have taken a short cut into the forbidden Dead Lands which were once the home of a tribe who mysteriously vanished and are now allegedly dominated by an evil demon who feast on human flesh.
Outnumbered and inexperienced Hongi is forced to find this monster and ask for his help in seeking honor and retribution for his people however the uneasy alliance between the vengeance fueled teenager and the ruthless and mysterious Warrior (played by Lawrence Makoare from Die Another Day, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) may end up proving far more dangerous than his perilous quest.
Directed by playwright and film director Toa Fraser whose previous work included the excellent reincarnation comedy Dean Spanley starring Sam Neill and Peter O’Toole The Dead Lands is as lush and breathtaking as the epic New Zealand landscape that dominates every scene of the film.
Reminiscent of Apocalypto and Tony Jaa’s great sequels to Ong-bak The Dead Lands presents us with an entirely authentic picture of a culture rarely seen on screen whilst coupling it with a compelling and fast paced plot line packed full of expertly choreographed fight scenes featuring traditional Maori martial art Mau Rakau and the deadly weapons employed by the mighty warriors of the period.
Although a simple story and done with actors all speaking in the Maori language the depth in the characters is immense especially the dynamic between the hulking cannibalistic Warrior and the innocent overburdened Hongi both of which vastly develop over the course of the film learning that the distinction between a legendary hero and an infamous monster is much thinner than you might expect.
Dealing with life and death, honor and revenge, history and ritual, guilt and retribution, The Dead Lands takes on some heavy weight subjects while never getting bogged down in pretension and making sure that a great fight scene is just around the next bend to keep the audience engaged.
The treatment of supernatural and spirituality is also extremely interesting as the characters all have a much closer relation to mysticism than modern day people.Although nothing is overtly presented to us as concrete proof of the paranormal within the film talking to your dead ancestors, fearing curses and believing in demons are presented as simple facts of life with the power of nature plus the frequent effigies and carvings of various ancient gods all around backing up these views and leaving the viewer to decide if Hongi’s otherworldly conversations with his long departed grandmother amidst a sea of stars and strange galaxies is real or simply a dream.
Profound and powerful The Dead Lands is unlike any other film you will have seen in a while and filled with gory action and pulse racing excitement it is the perfect combination for those seeking something different from the glut of historical gut busting fight movies that threatens to make the past seem out of date.