The Horror Honeys: The Dead Lands: Where the Warrior Spirit Was Born

The Dead Lands: Where the Warrior Spirit Was Born

A Head Honey Relocation Review by Kat

The Dead Lands (2014)

Since I'm smack dab in the middle of a major life relocation, it seemed more than appropriate to embrace the cinema of my new home with open arms. Thankfully, New Zealand is not only Middle Earth, but is also the birthplace of some side-splittingly hilarious splatter horror and some deeply disturbing revenge thrillers. I've been in love with New Zealand since before I stepped foot on her shores; and, like the giant archaeology/history nerd that I am, I'm rabid for any tidbits of the rich culture of the Māori people, especially when it's done in the Māori language. Gimmie.

The story: After his tribe is slaughtered through an act of treachery, the teenage son of a Māori chieftain looks to avenge the murder of his family and bring peace and honor to the souls of his loved ones.

What's missing from the IMDb description are some important plot points that shouldn't give away too much of the story. Hongi is the young son of a tribal leader, when members of a neighboring tribe request permission to pay respect to their fallen ancestors, Hongi follows them and witnesses the leader of the group, Wirepa, desecrating the skulls of the ancestors. And when I say desecrating, I mean that in the most serious way possible. Like, woah. Upon discovering that he has been followed, Wirepa proceeds to lose his mind, and under cover of darkness he returns with his warrior posse and slaughters the men of Hongi's villiage, including Hongi's father. What follows is a coming of age story as Hongi travels the land seeking revenge, and picking up a ferocious exiled warrior on his travels. This warrior is a nameless terror in an area known as The Dead Lands, and a powerful curse follows him and stains the land he lives in. Helping Hongi achieve his desire for revenge frees The Warrior from his curse, and is the key to redemption for the slaying of his own long dead tribe.

Many revenge-based films try to use their platform as a morality lesson  - showing that revenge is not the answer that the main character is seeking, and that exacting vengeance is something that should be regarded as hollow and lacking in reward... once the deed is done, what is left? For Hongi, his revenge is filled with deep sacred meaning, and to deny his father this revenge is an insult to his spirit, and the spirits of the warriors who were slain by the treachery of Wirepa and his followers.

Yes, please.
While many reviews I've read for The Dead Lands compare it to Mel Gibson's (stunning) Apocalypto - it would be ridiculous NOT to draw those comparisons - but in doing so, one has to also remember that the storyline of Apocalypto was borrowed from many films that came before it. The formula is easy to track, and I could honestly be talking about any film: A young, untested male is thrust into a world of chaos, pain and terror, usually alone. Being inexperienced, they lack the cunning and the training to overpower their foe and right the wrongs done to them, usually this weakness takes the form of a rash outburst or a public humiliation wherein the hero has to run away like a kicked dog - shame and self-doubt are a large part of this end of the character arc. Sometimes (but not always) our awkward hero is then joined by a helper who trains them and otherwise pushes them forward to victory - the survival of said helper is optional, but at some point, they must abandon the lead character. Typically, that pivotal death or departure is used as a plot advancer that brings the hero to his final conclusion (bonus points if this helper is female and she's raped and then killed, because that makes everyone angry). When broken down like this, a huge percentage of modern filmmaking and story writing falls into this familiar pattern. Why? Because it WORKS.

Girl, where's YOUR movie? I need it.
As someone who is deeply fascinated with Māori warrior culture and the history of New Zealand, The Dead Lands is full to the gills with fantastic imagery, beautiful costuming, and hidden meaning. There are some stumbles here and there with editing choices, a few moments of awkward CGI and characters that are introduced a little haphazardly (seriously, where did those witch wives go?). A male driven film to its core, The Dead Lands has one interesting female character, Mehe, but she disappears soon after she emerges from the trees - but again, this is a male driven film, and while the women who do appear are remarkable (Dream Grandmother is brilliant), and fiercer than 90% of their caucasian counterparts in other male driven films, they are a footnote in the world experience and ultimate arc of the hero.

Although long on meaning and cultural depth, horror fans looking for a kick won't be disappointed either. The Dead Lands features some of the more brutal hand to hand combat scenes I've seen in a while, and I found myself carried away by the fierceness of the culture, and the unwavering brutality and beauty of the Māori warriors.

Head Honey verdict: 3.5 tiki spirits out of 5  

You can find The Dead Lands on Netflix, VOD, DVD/Blu Ray

Hot Tip: If you're looking for more Māori films like The Dead Lands, check out Utu (1984)

Watch for more Kiwi-themed reviews 
as I settle in to my new home!