THE DEAD LANDS

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THE DEAD LANDS

When his family and tribe are slaughtered by the power hungry Wirepa (Tuhaka) following an act of desecration blamed on him, Hongi (Rolleston) sets out to prove his worth and exact revenge. Desperate to honour his slain chieftain father, he pursues the attackers into the feared Dead Lands, home to the spirits of a lost tribe and haunted by a legendary monster.

History and tradition are very much to the fore of Toa Fraser’s horror-inflected thriller. Claiming to be the first film to feature a cast taken entirely from New Zealand’s Māori people and set wholly in their language, The Dead Lands draws on the overly familiar story of boy-seeking-revenge while hooking up with a father substitute who teaches him how. There are some touching moments between Hongi and the ‘monster’ (Makoare – memorable as Bolg in The Hobbit films), a warrior who is the last of his people and with his own demons to satisfy, and you do get a real sense of both the respect and conflict in their relationship. The fight scenes are brutal and unflinching, with the Māori’s traditional martial art of Mau rākau being theatrically used as inspiration, a skill Hongi seems to learn overnight, and the blood flows freely enough to satisfy gore fans. So why is The Dead Lands just a bit dull?

Much of the blame perhaps unfairly rests at the Hobbit-y feet of Peter Jackson. It is nearly 15 years since Jackson first began his epic telling of Middle-earth, and yet The Dead Lands feels like a film from before that time. New Zealand somehow doesn’t look as mesmerisingly beautiful as you know it can, and the pursuit of Wirepa and his gang unintentionally stirs memories of Aragorn and friends hunting orcs. The fights are also slightly confusing in nature. The posturing and bravado of the ritualistic challenges of the warriors is fascinating; but when they get in close, it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain exactly who is doing what to whom, with the camera spinning and swooping around the similarly attired cast. There is also a curious interlude when Hongi and his now partially tame monster encounter a scouting party from another tribe, which includes a beautiful female warrior. While serving to add weight to the monster’s malicious reputation, it comes across a little unnecessary, as if the film is trying too hard to make Makoare’s character as unsympathetic as possible so any latter redemption is all the more powerful.

For all its flaws, The Dead Lands remains an interesting film. The mysticisms and traditions of the Māori people are handled with respectful honesty, allowing the viewer an insight into the harsh lives of a pre-colonial people, although there is over-emphasis on their cannibalistic nature (everyone seems to want to eat everyone else with some magic mushrooms on the side). With a reported budget that puts the film into the micro-category, Fraser and his crew must be applauded for what they have achieved. It’s clear what they were striving for, hoping to bring the Māori culture to cinema in way not yet seen but it falls a little short of having the impact of a film such as The Raid or Apocalypto, and the comparisons with Jackson’s films are unavoidable and unhelpful.

Taking everything into account The Dead Lands is perhaps as good a film as it could have been; after watching you’ll just wish it was a bit better.

INFO: CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: TOA FRASER / SCREENPLAY: GLENN STANDRING / STARRING: JAMES ROLLESTON, LAWRENCE MAKOARE, TE KOHE TUHAKA, XAVIER HORAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
 


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