Films about indigenous groups have a strange and sordid history in film. Their appearances are far and few in-between and those that exist are a mixed bag of both quality and subject matter. The Dead Lands seeks to join this small section of niche cinema as an action film about New Zealand tribal warriors. Sad to say, the final product doesn’t quite make the cut, despite being filled with plenty of cuts and blood.
The Dead Lands
Director: Toa Fraser
Release Date: April 1st, 2015 (Video On-Demand release)
The Dead Lands is a tale of revenge and redemption in the forests of New Zealand. The son of a tribal Maori chief, Hongi, goes on a quest to avenge his family when they are slaughtered in the night by a rival tribe, leaving him as the sole male survivor.
He travels to meet an old legendary warrior who teaches him the skills to fight like a true warrior while they both confront their own personal demons and history with their ancestral spirits. Once the training is complete, it’s time for all-out war with the murderers of Hongi’s tribe.
The movie is pretty ambitious in trying to make a gritty and realistic action film out of the conflicts of the tribes of New Zealand. Unfortunately, The Dead Lands runs into a lot of problems along the way that keeps it from being the exciting film that it wants to be.
The film in general is incredibly hard to follow, from the story which rarely gives context for the Maori culture to the erratic nature of the cinematography. The Dead Lands is presented in anamorphic widescreen, but doesn’t seem to make good use of the increased frame space. Shots are often very close to characters faces and other obstructions making it very hard to often see what’s going on or even get a sense of space.
Add on top of this that the camera is constantly cutting and changing focus which makes the action scenes peppered throughout the film just as hard to follow as the story. There seems to have been a focus on how intense and brutal these fights can get, with most conflicts ending after one or two hits with a sharp club. Though it can be hard to see the action, the film makes sure we can see the results.
Every cut, stab, and laceration is given a languishing focus which certainly does help to drive home the risk of these fights, but admittedly feels kind of gross by the midpoint of the movie. If movie blood makes you squeamish, this might be one you’ll want to skip. It almost feels like these effects are what the filmmakers were most proud of in the production. I suppose it makes sense as this ended up being the memorable part of the movie for me.
In general, The Dead Lands struggles to leave a lasting impression, but ends up proving difficult to watch and ultimately somewhat dull. There’s some merit to the idea of showing the journey of both new and old warriors along with their connection to the past and spirituality, but I never really got a good sense of the culture these characters were from, making it hard to understand much about these peoples outside of the tribal warfare.
With a stronger story, some tighter editing, and camerawork that exhibits the strengths of both the tribal martial arts and the natural beauty of New Zealand, The Dead Lands could’ve been a strong outing for such a unique premise. As it stands, the end result feels more akin to actors running around in the woods with a camera and a bunch of blood packs.