Cinema rarely looks to events of a pre-biblical vintage, but a mini-genre of pre-civilisation survival pictures does exist for those who pray to the old ones. The first instance of this primitive return to our roots which spears our interest was Clan of the Cave Bear, mysteriously directed by frequent Scorsese cinematographer Michael Chapman. More recently Kevin Reynolds took us on a adventure to Easter Island with Rapa Nui, and Roland Emmerich’s credibility was crushed with 10,000 BC, whilst the more seriously minded Nicolas Winding Refn added his brooding masculinity to the genre with his monosyllabic Valhalla Rising. Perhaps the highest profile film in the prehistoric swaps of survival is Mel Gibson’s brutal Apocalypto, which seemed to have been culled from the video game techniques of peril and boss fights rather than the historical archive of the local Natural History museum, with a colonial conclusion that left a bitter taste.
These primordial pictures have been joined in battle by a sojourn in pre-colonial New Zealand or, as it was known to its inhabitants, “Te Ao Maori” (the Maori World) in the blistering new action thriller The Dead Lands, a spirited endurance movie which also holds the bruising distinction of being the first film to be designed around Mau rākau, the traditional Maori martial art of armed combat. In further fidelity to the proud legends of the Maori tribes, the film’s plot has been honoured from the concept of mana, a tribal conceit encapsulating honour, respect for your ancestry and elders, and the peacock plumage of power.
Although a long peace has yielded plentiful bounties for two warring tribes, the calm is about to be broken. The wise chieftain’s teenage son Hongi (James Rolleston) is exiled into the wilderness after his people are slaughtered by the wicked Rangi (Xavier Horan) during a secretive nighttime raid. Keen to avenge his people and replenish their honour, Hongi faces a arduous task: to enter the mysteriously lethal ‘dead lands’ and somehow convince the brutal monsters within to aid him in his dire quest to bring eternal peace to his loved ones, while the frenzied marauders frantically search for him in order to completely sever his peoples bloodline. With his people’s killers still on his trail, it’s a precarious balance of life or death for Hongi as he wrestles with ancient concepts of violence and vengeance, and having to take a leap of faith with mysterious allies if he is to succeed.
When you strip away the conveniences and distractions of modern life, a sustained trawl through our ancient genesis can be a thrilling experience, as many of the shared concepts throughout human cultures – loyalty, family, ancestry, and honour – permeate to the surface in an almost mythical fashion. The Dead Lands walks these paths with a primordial precision which is further punctured with brutal bouts of violence, as Hongi embarks on his epic quest against a beautiful New Zealand backdrop. Thankfully the travelogue isn’t designed to simply ape a post-Lord of the Rings tourist board effort, as the film retains a sense of strong commitment and fidelity to the languages, customs, costumes and tools of these noble and savage people, with all the requisite bone-crunching effects on the sound mix which should have viewers grimacing in pain throughout the well-paced and executed combat sequences.
The plot has a few surprises as Hongi meets potential allies and enemies on his mission, with a muscular conclusion reminiscent of Michael Mann’s more masculine meditations. Respectful of the past and refreshingly original in location and locale, The Dead Lands is a worthy champion among the cinema of primitive pugilists.
— John McEntee