We don’t typically think of mythology as horror-leaning. Though a lot of myths have some pretty horrific origins, the ones western culture are most familiar with have been sanitized, made more palpable to a PG-13 audience. Where once there was the monstrous frost giants of Norse mythology, there’s now hammer-fodder for the gorgeous Chris Hemsworth.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing necessarily, I personally love myths worked into an action-movie plot. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to make mythology a little bloody now and again? To remind viewers that the people making up these myths lived in dangerous times, when other people and even nature itself constantly presented the fear of death? The Dead Lands thinks so.
The Dead Lands tells the story of Waka Nuku Rau, a bloodthirsty warrior from the time of Māori myth. Waka has lived a life of evil, so when death finally catches up to him, a guardian of the next world tells him he does not deserve paradise. However, the guardian is willing to give him another chance: he’ll give Waka a shot at paradise if he can find a way to live with honor. Accepting these terms, Waka is returned to the land of the living, where all is not well.
Other dead spirits have also returned to Earth, inhabiting decaying but powerful bodies of the recently deceased. Shortly upon meeting (and killing) one of these creatures, Waka meets Mehe, a young woman whose tribe was attacked by the undead things. When Mehe asks for Waka‘s help, he sees his opportunity to find this life of honor he needs. But it won’t be as simple as saving Mehe‘s tribe, who seem at the brink of social collapse themselves. To live this new life, in this new and deadly world, Waka will have to pick up old habits… habits that are anything but honorable.
“[…] wouldn’t it be nice to make mythology a little bloody now and again? […] The Dead Lands thinks so.“
So much about The Dead Lands works on so many levels, but nothing is quite as phenomenal as its setting. Filmed across the naturally mythic woods of New Zealand, The Dead Lands envelopes the viewer in magic from the very first shot. Wide, flying shots of the trees and valleys provide a perfect home for the monsters and gods of Māori mythology, not to mention the legendary figures at the center of the series. And this is just the land of the living. When we see the titular place beyond the veil, you’ll see just how quickly this production crew can turn awe-inspiring to haunting.
But the haunts don’t stop there. Pervasive in this land of lore are forced of darkness both visible and not, most well represented in the undead creatures that have overtaken it. Night of the Living Dead fans will thrill at the smart use of monster makeup and physical acting that went into building these monsters. That said, these aren’t zombies per se. They are spirits crammed back into their bodies, furious at being stripped of their afterlife. They are rage personified, with the faces (and deadly fighting skills) of our protagonists’ loved ones. Watch out for some emotionally resonant, very scary confrontations between the current living and the formerly so.
As you’ve probably already gathered, The Dead Lands is a visual triumph. If you haven’t, let me say now that this show is proof positive that horror is the genre for cinematographers. Using the images of the Māori legends at the heart of the story, The Dead Lands weaves a story that’s as beautiful as it is terrifying. However, the story those images tell us occasionally hard to follow, mostly because the rules of this magic world aren’t very well-defined. It was tough to know what a few of the character motivations were when I didn’t know what tasks they had to complete, or what the magic stakes would be if they failed. Eventually, I could figure it out, but it took some guesswork to get there.
Still, there’s two giant upsides to that, which ultimately amounts to one small problem with the series. First, it made me immediately more curious about Māori mythology. The Dead Lands is a phenomenal introduction into a wide and, for horror fans, often terrifying set of tales. And second, there was an effective sense of mystery surrounding the show. Keeping plot details back can be a great way to tell a horror story, and though I could’ve used less restraint in The Dead Lands, there were times I enjoyed not knowing. And if you believe everything’s got to be clear to tell a horror story, there are some Fire Walk With Me fans on this site who would love to disagree.
“The Dead Lands is a phenomenal introduction into a wide and, for horror fans, often terrifying set of tales.“
With Netflix’s The Witcher making huge waves on social media and Shudder’s own Head Hunter causing a stir in the horror sphere, we’re likely going to see a lot of a certain sub genre popping up soon: action-fantasy-horror. If it does, we predict that a lot of these stories will have a pretty significant budget behind them. However, Shudder’s horror mythology series is proof that’s not what they need. With a small budget and scrappy, The Dead Lands tells a story as big as the night sky, and just as awe-inspiring.
The first two episodes of The Dead Lands hit Shudder on January 23rd, with the rest of the series coming out each following Thursday. Make sure to check it out, and don’t forget to tell us what you think of it on our Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter pages. For more reviews like this one, plus a whole month of horror films from the black & white age, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.