Before the age of streaming and VOD, we as a consumer base had very limited means of seeking out our favorite TV shows and films. It’s almost difficult to think of a time without our modern-day streaming services feeding us ready and available content. We’ve become spoiled gluttons of entertainment...
...There has been a shift in everyday moviegoers in the last fifteen years or so, as we began to realize we were getting better entertainment from our living rooms, than we were at the multiplex. When a new show releases today, creative talents are up against a spoiled audience, who are quick to tire of something, moving on to the countless other offerings of entertainment. Simply put, we have stricter expectations for our television these days. Shudder’s latest series, The Dead Lands, is a tale that is up against a myriad of television heavyweights and has the daunting task to compete with them. It isn’t uncommon for a show with sparse marketing to succeed, but in our current TV climate, it does have a lot to prove if it wants to cement itself with staying power.
The Dead Lands is the spawn of a 2014 Māori action film also titled The Dead Lands. That 2014 film was written and created by Glenn Standring, who has also penned this Shudder original series. The story begins with a somewhat simple, primal premise; Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka), a perceived savage and bloodthirsty Māori warrior, is killed and sent to purgatorial afterlife. There he is visited by a keeper of the realm who tells him he must return to the world he knew, to right his wrongs and possibly redeem himself. Angry and cocksure, Waka Nuku reluctantly agrees to return, as his only other choice is to do battle with a lost spirit, who is sure to destroy him. Upon returning, Waka Nuku is disoriented, confused and unsure of his required duties. Slowly, with the help from the spirits of his ancestors, he begins to piece together a grave danger that threatens to merge the world of the living and the dead. Spirits are returning to their dead bodies and wreaking havoc on the world, as they are angry that their afterlife has been stolen from them.
From the onset, I thought I had The Dead Lands all figured out. It comes off like a mediocre Syfy channel series that you may catch on accident when you can’t sleep at three in the morning. I say that without cynicism, as some of my fondest television memories come from sleepless nights much like that. It did seem, however, that it would be a fairly standard supernatural affair that has a very ‘TV’ feel to it. By the end of the first episode I won’t say my original impression was completely changed or turned around, but it was certainly shifted. There was one scene of exposition that paved a way for a story that I could see going to some interesting places. Sometimes in supernatural or fantasy shows, exposition scenes are unnatural info dumps that slow things to a halt. Here, I feel it gave the show momentum and elevated what could have been, a very flat, predictable introduction to a story.
As I do have faith in the story of The Dead Lands, I am concerned that our protagonist, Waka Nuku, may not be very interesting. Granted, I have only seen a sliver of what the show has to offer, but he seems to fall into the character pitfall of the brooding antihero. He speaks little, has minimal expression and tends to be in a constant state of agitation or unrest. As I watched this character, I forecasted his eventual character arc as an obvious narrative cliché. That being said, I’ve been proved wrong before and he could absolutely turn out to be a very moving, sympathetic character. I simply have doubts that he can carry the show and I’m relieving responsibility from actor, Te Kohe Tuhaka, because I think this is a problem in the writing, not an actor’s talents. Out of everyone, I am more intrigued by the characters in the netherworld than I am with our leads.
As a horror show, The Dead Lands has a lot of potential based on my initial impressions. Horror action may be a more appropriate way to describe this, as there is a fair bit of fighting with the Māori style of martial arts being front and center. It’s all choreographed expertly and also believable. The action is married to the horror seamlessly as we are shown the gory consequences of the fights and encounters. The blood itself has a dark, almost blackened hue and it adds to the realism and visceral violence. This isn’t campy or self-aware in any way. This is down and dirty and it’s not afraid to go all the way.
Glenn Standring and directors Peter Burger and Michael Hurst play everything straight, with little to no humor or relief from the show’s intensity. This may actually end up being a downfall for the show, as sometimes it’s hard to strike a good balance. These things end up feeling silly if they take themselves too seriously. Nonetheless, I don’t see it as a problem yet. The tone may be a tad too glum, but it doesn’t feel goofy. The production value is admirable with good looking costumes, makeup and locations in New Zealand that give the show a larger scope. I was worried near the beginning when Waka is in the netherworld, as his physical surroundings looked inconsistently blended with green screen effects. In the land of the living, though, some of what we see can be truly beautiful.
The Dead Lands is a show in a sea of sharks. There is a large variety of great television right now and my biggest fear isn’t that the show is weak, but rather that it won’t connect to a large enough audience to stick around. Fans of Shudder content are loyal though, and I will be following Waka’s journey all the way through of this eight-episode series. It certainly has potential to thrive. I do have reservations regarding the antihero and his ability to carry the narrative and the tone may prove too serious, but I hope it’s able to keep up the momentum it has managed thus far. This is one I recommend any fan of gore horror, martial arts and supernatural fantasy check out.
Enter The Dead Lands when the first two episodes premiere on Shudder in the U.S., Canada, UK and Ireland on January 23rd, 2020, with subsequent episodes of the 8-episode series dropping every Thursday after.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth