Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Dead Lands, on Shudder

It wasn’t a virus that created these zombies. It was spiritual and cosmic, like a manifestation of Pre-Columbian malaise. Something is blocking the dead’s passage from the earthly Maori world (pre-Western contact), to the realm of the hereafter. That forces all the angry new spirits back into their decaying bodies. The notorious warrior Waka Nuku Rau also came back from the dead, but he is a special case. His ancestors won’t take him until he atones for his barbaric sins. It will take something big, but if he can reopen the passage between worlds of the living and the dead, bringing balance back to the universe, he could possibly restore his lost honor in The Dead Lands the series, which premieres today on Shudder.

The series incarnation of Dead Lands is more or less set in the same Maori universe as the 2014 film of the same name and their share similar themes and creator/screenwriter Glenn Standring, but the narratives discretely stand alone. Te Kohe Tuhaka also stars in both, first playing the menacing villain Wirepa and the film and now portraying Waka, the anti-hero—with an emphasis on “anti.”

Having killed, maimed, and pillaged with reckless abandon, Waka is a little short on good karma when his enemies finally get the drop on him. Essentially, the guardians of the afterlife send him right back where he came from, but being heroic does not come naturally to him. It takes a while for Waka to realize he was probably meant to help Mehe rescue her father, the chief of her tribe, from a subterranean horde of zombies (technically, they don’t call them zombies, because the Maori do not yet have Walking Dead comics or Living Dead movies, but it is the same difference).

Waka and Mehe bicker like cats and dogs, but when push comes to shove, he has her back—or at least he does throughout the first three episodes made available to the media. You have to give him credit for that, because the spirit of his not-so-dearly departed mother is constantly pushing him to sacrifice Mehe to the spirits. She is quite a piece of work, like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate crossed with Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom. It is easy to understand how he grew up to be so angry.

Dead or not, Waka still sure can fight. Good thing too, because he will have plenty of opportunities. Rather reluctantly, Waka will find himself embroiled in a power struggle within Mehe’s tribe and a mission to rescue a young man who knows who broke the world from a trio of witches, but he is always comfortable hacking away at zombies with his paddle-shaped patus.

The Dead Lands film deliberately set out to showcase the Maori martial arts of Mau Rakau. The series does not skimp on action either, but it also balances it with supernatural elements. Fans of the Joseon zombie movie Rampant should definitely dig this series too.

Everyone who saw the movie knows Te Kohe Tuhaka has all kinds of fierce action chops and Mau Rakau skills. In the series, he also turns out to be increasingly charismatic and surprising funny. In just three episodes, he develops Waka into an enormously entertaining, snarlingly roguish action lead. Mehe’s character has yet to be fully defined, but Darneen Christian nicely plays off Tuhaka in their sparring scenes (verbal and physical). Yet, Vicky Haughton upstages everyone as Waka’s nasty mum, Turika. Seriously, her work is on a level with Weaver’s Oscar-nominated performance in Animal Kingdom.

Dead Lands the series is dark, violent, and admittedly a little bit meatheadish at times, but it evokes a deep, primordial vibe. It also fully taps into the power of New Zealand’s wild natural beauty. If the series catches on, it is easy to envision the Lord of the Rings tours adding a few Dead Lands stops. So far, it is a good deal of fun, while still taking its underlying mythology deadly seriously (unlike The Witcher). Recommended for fans of the action and horror genres, The Dead Lands launches today (1/23) on Shudder.