The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>THE DEAD LANDS</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE DEAD LANDS

A teenage Maori seeks revenge for the slaughter of his village by a rival tribe.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Toa Fraser

Starring: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka

"If you're a fan of the crop of cheap straight to video Conan knockoffs that proliferated during the mid-80s, this might win you over with nostalgia for incompetent action; The Dead Lands is more hack than haka."

New Zealand's native people, the Maori, have been portrayed on screen with some success over the past couple of decades. 1994's Once Were Warriors was an international hit (it played in a cinema here in Dublin for over a year!) and was voted New Zealand's best ever film by Kiwi cinemagoers in a 2014 poll. Eight years later, the coming of age drama Whale Rider was a similar breakout hit, even earning an Oscar nomination for its young star Keisha Castle-Hughes. Now, with The Dead Lands, director Toa Fraser gives us a period Maori drama that aims for Kurosawa rather than Kiwi kitchen sink drama.
Set during some unnamed era long before the arrival of the white man on New Zealand's shores, The Dead Lands tells the story of Hongi (James Rolleston), the sheltered son of a tribal leader. When members of a rival tribe attack his village one night, slaughtering the males and raping the women, Hongi flees for his life. Returning home the following morning, he is made to feel ashamed for his cowardice and vows to avenge his village. Knowing he can't take on his rivals alone, Hongi enters a forbidden zone, the titular Dead Lands, and enlists the aid of a feared cannibalistic warrior, who many believe is more monster than man.
It may not have previously worn these particular tribal tattoos, but The Dead Lands is a story we've seen countless times, usually within the western genre. The unique setting holds our interest for a while until we realise Toa Fraser and his screenwriter Glenn Standring have delivered nothing more than a cliché ridden, sub-standard hero's journey movie. I've seen this film mentioned in the same breath as Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, but furry jock-straps aside, The Dead Lands has little in common with Gibson's period romp. Where Gibson gave us something close to a silent movie, Fraser's film is packed with dialogue so poorly written I began to identify with those people who claim reading subtitles gives them headaches. There isn't a natural conversation in the movie; every line of dialogue is conceived to give us insight into the film's Maori milieu, but it's rarely convincing.
Authenticity isn't The Dead Lands' strong point. The dialogue is suspiciously modern and the characters appear to count time using the Gregorian calendar. At times the filmmaking is woefully inept, none more so than a scene in which we're asked to believe a bunch of characters are trapped, despite a way out being clearly visible in the background. The fight scenes are staged in bland fashion and lack the necessary visceral impact, despite the cartoonishly over the top sound effects. If you're a fan of the crop of cheap straight to video Conan knockoffs that proliferated during the mid-80s, this might win you over with nostalgia for incompetent action; The Dead Lands is more hack than haka.