Movie Review

The Dead Lands

Where the warrior spirit was born
The Dead Lands Movie Poster

US Release Date: 04-17-2015

Directed by: Toa Fraser


  • James Rolleston
  • Hongi
  • Lawrence Makoare
  • The Warrior
  • Te Kohe Tuhaka
  • Wirepa
  • Xavier Horan
  • Rangi
  • Raukura Turei
  • Mehe
  • George Henare
  • Tane
  • Rena Owen
  • Grandmother
  • Pana Hema Taylor
  • Mana
  • Calvin Tuteao
  • Ka
  • Jamus Webster
  • Tahi
  • Bianca Hyslop
  • Pipi
  • Isabella Rakete
  • Keri
  • Matariki Whatarau
  • Tama
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: April 19th, 2015
Lawrence Makoare in The Dead Lands.

Lawrence Makoare in The Dead Lands.

The Dead Lands was New Zealand's submission in the best foreign language category at the 2015 Academy Awards. It didn't earn a nomination, which doesn't really surprise me since it's more of an action movie than an Oscar contender, but that doesn't mean it's without merit. Although it runs slightly long, there's enough action to keep you entertained.

The story is set in New Zealand prior to the arrival of Europeans and centers around a tale of revenge. Hongi (Rolleston) is the son of a Maori chief. The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. When the movie begins, Hongi's tribe has agreed to a meeting with a rival tribe who it had defeated in battle years before. The meeting is supposed to be so the rival tribe can honor the remains of its ancestors, but in reality it's so the rival chief's son, Rangi, can provoke a war. He launches a sneak attack and wipes out all of the male members of Hongi's tribe, except for Hongi himself, who escapes by hiding, but is rendered unconcious after a fall down a hill. When he awakes, prodded by bitter recriminations from his mother over his survival, he sets out on a quest to avenge his loss.

Rangi, flushed with success, decides to take a shortcut through an area known as the Dead Lands, a supposedly cursed area. According to legend it is haunted by a demon. As Hongi follows the enemy tribe, he encounters the warrior who lives there. Instead of a demon, he is a solitary warrior haunted by his past, who kills everyone who enters his territory and then feasts upon their flesh. Hongi seeks him out for help, and the warrior eventually agrees, seeing it as a possible means of redemption. Together the innocent young chief's son and the hardened warrior set out on their journey.

Shot on location, the scenery is lush and green. The wide shots of tropical forests makes it easy to believe that you are far from the modern world.

Although not a movie that requires a great range, the central cast does a decent job. Lawrence Makoare is particularly effective as the warrior. He starts as simply a monster, but gradually you come to see the man underneath. He makes a nice contrast to the more wide-eyed James Rolleston. Some of the supporting cast are less good, being obviously hired more for the muscles than their acting ability. It's also a very male dominated film. When Raukura Turei shows up in the middle of the film as Mehe, one of the only female speaking parts, it's a relief to escape from the testosterone even if only for a few minutes.

There are several battle scenes that include quite a bit of blood. The demon warrior is a one man killing machine, mowing down the enemy one after the other. One off putting aspect is the way the warriors employ their tongues before and during the battles. It might be historically accurate, but I found it distracting and unpleasant.

Despite its simple revenge plot, the film does run nearly 2 hours and there's room for tightening. A cut closer to 90 minutes would seem more suitable for such a simple story of revenge. The plot also isn't the most original of stories. It's only the character of the warrior that feels in anyway fresh. You'll probably be reminded of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. Certainly if you enjoyed that film, you'll find things to like about this one.

Reviewed on: April 21st, 2015
James Rolleston in The Dead Lands.

James Rolleston in The Dead Lands.

Like Scott, I was reminded of Apocalypto. Both movies have similar storylines featuring primitive indigenous tribes in conflict, and both movies are ultra-violent. I agree that the plot is slight and the editing could have been tightened a bit. Still there is plenty to enjoy about The Dead Lands.

The two main characters are quite interesting. Hongi is just 16 and on the cusp of manhood. Avenging his father's betrayal, and the murder of all the adult male members of his tribe, is his quest. He will either die trying or become a full-fledged warrior in the process. The other main character, the mysterious warrior figure, is the most intriguing person in the movie. As my brother wrote, he comes across as an evil beast at first, then slowly becomes human as we learn his back story. He's a tormented soul who's led a sad, sad life.

As with most movies of this ilk, the bad guys are pretty one-dimensional. Wirepa, the main villain, is a walking cliché. But the story manages to conjure up some real tension and sense of danger. And the panoramic cinematography is stunning. Life was harsh in that time and place. The Dead Lands offers a colorful look at what it meant to be a man in the days when your very survival depended on how ferocious of a warrior you were.

What I didn't expect from this movie was any depth of character. But there is more going on here than just men fighting other men. Hongi and the mysterious warrior are both real people. Over the course of the movie I got to know them and became emotionally invested in their mission. The Dead Lands is not without its flaws but they are outweighed by its more positive qualities. It's certainly worth a look.

Reviewed on: November 2nd, 2015
Were there gyms in New Zealand way back then?

Were there gyms in New Zealand way back then?

Yes, The Dead Lands is a decent action film, as my brothers wrote. However, it wants to be more than that. It is essentially a revenge film but it throws in spirituality and attempts at some depth. Hongi is a boy whose growth into manhood is forced upon him. The Warrior not only becomes his mentor and trainer but Hongi even refers to him as his father at one point. As the story goes we discover that the boy and the warrior have more in common than originally thought.

Not only does The Warrior teach Hongi how to use ping pong paddles as deadly weapons but also some other lessons. Hongi was born and raised to prove himself in battle. He proudly goes on about the nobility in death. The Warrior, who has seen the death of countless people and many at his own hands, responds, “Noble? That is what old men teach boys so they will rush into death for their tribe.” The ending is touching and very fitting for their relationship.

Where The Dead Lands missteps is that it tries to create a realistic depiction of pre-European influenced Maori life. The script was written in English and then translated into Maori for authentic dialogue. It was filmed on location with appropriate weapons and dress of the time and place. The look of the film is nearly flawless except when it comes to the cast. A couple of the actors playing Wirepa’s warriors and the actress playing Mehe are obviously at least partially of European descent.

Te Kohe Tuhaka is good as Wirepa, whether threatening Hongi or licking excrement. However, he and several of his warriors have clearly spent time in a modern gym. Had The Dead Lands simply been an all-out action film, it would not have mattered so much. Since Toa Fraser was going for sincerity, their physiques as well as the partial Caucasian actors stand out and annoy as much as children trick or treating without costumes.

Had The Dead Lands simply been an adventure film, with some personal growth, such flaws would not have meant as much. In fact, it could be edited down to just that but the filmmakers intended this movie to be so much more. There is nothing wrong with wanting a film that makes its audience think but this movie needed to decide what it was going for, an action film or historical accuracy. It only partially accomplishes both.

Related Review