The Dead Lands is the first fiction feature made up entirely of characters belonging to New Zealand’s Māori population and spoken wholly in their language. To honor the occasion, director Toa Fraser has made a faux-epic revenge film whose main sign of cultural specificity is a gratuitous emphasis on cannibalism. The plot is composed wholesale from recyclable material. Two tribes with ancient family conflicts—one good, one garishly evil—rekindle old spats when Hongi (James Rolleston), the son of the former’s chieftain, gets mixed up in the other clan’s affairs, stoking the ire of bulked-up leader Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka). Much of Hongi’s tribe is slaughtered, and after belabored stressing of the fact that ancestral virtues of honor and legacy have been breached, a war breaks out that calls on this inexperienced and newly orphaned boy to enlist the assistance of the Warrior (Lawrence Makoare), a monstrous cannibal who presides over the film’s titular death trap. A surrogate father-son relationship develops, and there’s even a reverberant spirit mother dwelling in an emerald green dreamscape to round out the bildungsroman. All that’s missing is a ring to rule them all.
At the risk of overstating the tenuous Lord of the Rings correlation (though, to be sure, the panoramic emphasis on New Zealand’s natural beauty does offer a nice continuation of that franchise’s visual patina), Fraser has basically conceived of his baddies as Orcs. With each macho taunt comes a doom-filled sound effect, confirming that Fraser takes this ghoulish behavior as seriously as his characters do. It’s clear that some thorough research was conducted on the theatricality of pre-colonial Māori fighters—enough, at least, to draw on the traditional martial art of Mau rākau, of which the Warrior is an expert and Hongi tediously comes to learn. But the film’s strained emphasis on body language suggests a sensationalized exhibitionism that seems equally troubling for the integrity of the tradition. The Dead Lands winds up feeling like a cheap haunted house where heinous figures scream at you, make scary faces and jump out from dark places, and, when suspecting their act isn’t working, merely scream louder, get scarier, and jump more vigorously.
Needless to say, this act lends an air of silliness to the fight sequences, which could potentially have been the saving grace of the film’s tired and overly familiar narrative arc. No such luck. Fraser’s action m.o. is to provide one legible, spatially clarifying shot per every 10 or 15 shots of messy widescreen carnage while peppering the barrage of blunt-objects-to-the-head with inane snippets of verbal assault like “war feeds our glory” and “I will fill your daughter’s uterus with dirt.” Everything’s robustly backlit and blood flows freely (the squib budget must have been through the roof), both of which give the film’s surface a shimmering tactility that will trick adrenaline junkies into drooling over the film’s expensive-looking cinematography. The reality is that The Dead Lands is nothing more than a phony collection of storytelling clichés held under the banner of archetype and lent a modicum of weight by the splendor of the landscape and the detail of the face-paint jobs. Essentially, the Māori remain dubiously represented.
Correction: April 20, 2015
This review was revised from an earlier version so as to avoid any ambiguity as to the intent of the author’s problems with the film’s depiction of Māori traditions.