The Dead Lands has a brilliant premise. Waka (Te Kohe Tuhaka) is a Māori warrior, notorious for his ruthlessness. He’s lived a life without honor but has conquered much of the lands surrounding his and is feared by the neighboring communities. When he dies, he goes to the afterlife and at the gates of heaven, he’s charged by another warrior.
He pounds on the door, asking to be let in, as the other warrior gains ground. When Waka realizes no one is coming, he turns and fights. Quickly, he cuts the other man’s throat. The unnamed warrior’s head tilts back, dead. But then he begins fighting again, despite the killing blow.
Another mysterious man. Ka (Kirk Torrance) calls the warrior off and tells Waka, “Your ancestors refuse you.” Ka sends Waka back out into the land of the living, saying, “Redeem yourself in the world.”
Waka isn’t the only dead sent back, though he’s the only one with his senses. The others, called “the dead,” aren’t the Father of Zombie’s George A. Romero’s undead. They’re fast, like Danny Boyle’s zombies in 28 Days Later, but they’ve got a leg up on those ghouls as well. They’re not smart enough to be vampires, but they’re not going back to the shopping mall to do laps either.
The titular dead in The Dead Lands also seem to have taken their fighting skills from their previous life. Upon death, they must’ve gained at least fifteen pounds of muscle mass to bolster those abilities. As Waka finds out through painful trial and error, these Gold’s Gym devotees can only be killed by decapitation.
These dead attacked the village of the show’s other principal character, Mehe (Darneen Christian). They slaughtered some of her people, and kidnapped her father. When her sulky brother refuses to help save their father, she seeks out help from the scariest person she can think of: Waka.
Normally, he wouldn’t do this kind of thing. She has very little to offer, but there was that whole thing about him needing to earn his spot among his ancestors. This seems as honorable a task as any. As his mother’s ghost puts it, “There’s a break between the world of the living and the world of the dead” and it would be pretty hard to say the guy who fixed it couldn’t come into heaven.
The two form an unlikely pairing. Mehe is a young idealist, saying things like, “If what you believe makes you do horrible things, you’ve got to change what you believe” and “Be the man you want to be. Not the man you used to be.” Waka is a world-hardened cynic, dropping dark tidbits, “Perhaps honor is something the powerful use against the weak to get what they want.” They might not be police officers, but make no mistake, this is a buddy cop dynamic.
While Te Kohe Tuhaka and Darneen Christian have good chemistry, carrying the story well, the writing of show creator Glenn Standring—who wrote all eight episodes and the source material for the series, the film The Dead Lands—lets them down at times. Each episode has a moment where Waka threatens to leave Mehe. But their friendship grows organically. They teach each other—Waka trains Mehe to fight, something her father forbade; Mehe teaches Waka to think, something his pride forbade. Their growing relationship makes Waka’s constant attempts to abandon Mehe get old fast. After a few episodes, they feel out of character.
The show’s sometimes repetitive structure can be grating as well. After the first episode, a few in a row begin in medias res. The opening scene shows the villain that Waka and Mehe will fight in the installment’s climax doing villain things. Because audiences are savvy enough to know that Waka and Mehe aren’t going to die in episode three, it’s hard to take the fights seriously. This structure calls back to Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess, which isn’t surprising considering that Michael Hurst, who directed half of The Dead Lands (Peter Meteherangi Tikao Burger directed the other half), directed six episodes of each show.
Despite some issues with the writing and the structure, the show is well worth watching. In large part because once the later episodes abandon the formula, Waka and Mehe face off against foes that aren’t so easy to beat. Their vulnerability brings some much-needed excitement to the proceedings.
That thrill is bolstered by the show’s excellent choreography. Te Kohe Tuhaka is a big dude, and he performs admirably in the fight scenes, in large part because of the energy he brings to each fight’s opening taunts. His character, Waka, believes in trash talking to make his opponents act rashly, and Tuhaka delivers those lines with gusto. There’s something about him yelling, “I’ll rip off your flesh and s*** you into eternity” that jacks up the brawl to come. Darneen Christian, in her second acting role ever, holds her own across from him.
Both of their performances are buffeted with excellent makeup. Waka has a Tā moko scarred into his face, while Mehe has one tattooed on her chin. Neither performer has these tattoos, but you’d never know by watching the show. Nearly every other cast member wears them as well. It brings out what separates The Dead Lands from the aforementioned Hercules and Xena. This is an authentic Māori story, with Māori talent in front of the camera and behind it, with director Peter Meteherangi Tikao Burger.
It’s also shot on location in New Zealand. The forests are a lush, gorgeous playground for Waka and Mehe to decapitate the dead. The caves make excellent settings as well. It wouldn’t take an expert cinematographer to make this a beautiful show, but John Cavill and David Paul both do excellent work on their respective episodes.
Along with the beautiful location, The Dead Lands has a great score. The theme song, written by Lachlan Anderson, has been stuck in my head for weeks and I haven’t complained once. The mix of electric guitars and trumpets will pump up the most mild-mannered viewer.
The Dead Lands may start slow, but once it starts going, it’s a hell of a ride. Hopefully it’ll continue with a second season.
Wicked Rating – 8/10
Creator: Glenn Standring
Directors: Peter Meteherangi Tikao Burger, Michael Hurst
Stars: Te Kohe Tuhaka, Darneen Christian, Kirk Torrance
Release: June 8, 2020 (Shudder)
Studio/Production Co: General Film Corporation
Length: 8 episodes; 44 minutes