REVIEW: ‘The Dead Lands,’ Episode 1 – Tell the Dead I’m Coming

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The Dead Lands

When it comes to streaming services, original content is one of the best ways to diversify genres by adding new perspectives from across the globe, across various identities, and push media to a more representative future. Shudder, AMC Networks’ streaming service for horror, thriller, and the supernatural, is the service doing the most work for the genre and its one of the reasons that I champion it. The newest in their diverse line up is The Dead Lands, a co-production with New Zealand’s TVNZ which is focused on a supernatural adventure in a mythic Māori past. Episode one of The Dead Lands, “Tell The Dead I’m Coming” is a fast start to a new series.

The Dead Lands focuses on a murdered Māori warrior, Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka), who’s sent back to the world of the living to redeem his sins after his ancestors refuse to give him rest. This puts him in a unique position, he’s not dead, but he is also not truly alive. But the world Waka returns to is ravaged by a breach between Life and the Afterlife as the spirits of the newly dead now stalk the land and hunt the living. Along the way, Waka encounters Mehe (Darneen Christian), a strong-willed woman from a tribe who refuses to acknowledge the breach between worlds before its too late

In episode one, our two lead characters meet and Mehe pushes Waka to help save her tribe. With this, we get two colliding stories. Waka is alone, pushed out of the land of the dead where he belongs, carrying the news that the ancestors have chosen to punish humans, and not just him, for their deeds. Mehe knows that there something wrong. The land is pushing her tribe out, while bird suffers unnatural death, she tries to use them to warn her family, to no avail. But when monsters attack and kill members of the community including her father, everyone, including Mehe and Waka learn first hand why they need to fear what the dead have sent after them.

The Dead Lands, as well as the characters within it, are inspired by Māori traditions, mythology, and histories. This includes language and the absence of subtitles in the situations when the characters speak Māori. While I don’t understand those moments based on words, I understand them based on emotion and what the scene is trying to portray. This works in the same way Into the Spider-Verse and Seis Manos did when they chose to omit English subtitles for Spanish. It’s a note from the showrunners that this story is first and foremost for the culture being portrayed while using predominantly English makes it accessible to larger audiences.

The series is set in a mythical Aoteoroa (the Māori name for New Zealand). The land itself has already begun its journey to becoming a character in the series as the showrunners take full advantage of the natural beauty of its landscapes. “Tell The Dead I’m Coming” is beautifully shot, grounding the story in a human world first, and pulling at its ends as the supernatural begins to enter the frame. The fog, the lighting, the foliage all work to create a natural setting which acts as an accent when the supernatural seeps into it.

In order to honor the Māori people and their culture, the creation of the series required authoritative Māori control and advice to be present in all areas, both in front of and behind the camera. From myth, to language, and costuming, The Dead Lands gives audiences a Māori story and “Tell The Dead I’m Coming” is a powerful start, to say the least.

The series features screen combat performed in the Māori martial art of Mau Rākau. The action scenes featured in “Tell The Dead I’m Coming” are choreographed extremely well,  while the elements of fantasy the story have been given are shaped by versions of Māori rituals reimagined for the show. For audiences used to extremely sharp weapons like swords, knives, and axes, the patu onewa or the mere pounamu may not seem intimidating. Then, the characters wield them and you learn how much damage they can do.

My only issue with the episode – and I assume the series – is how little difference between what we know as monsters and the humans we’re following are. With black dripping from their mouths and pale skin, it’s interesting to see, but it does make it hard to follow during some of the night sequences in the episode. Additionally, some fo the sound effects that come when a stone hits body or punches land, seem too loud for the moments they strike. That said, these are small notes on a series with a great start.

The power of “Tell The Dead I’m Coming” and I assume The Dead Lands is that Mehe is the star. The words spoken to her by her father “bend to your role in life” strike harder than the weapons that Waka uses and set her character up to subvert this familial expectation. Mehe is strong, she’s assertive, and most of all, she’s her own person. Her goal is to save her father, regardless of what she needs to do to get there. She opens the episode with her narration, and you never once question her importance to the story. It also doesn’t hurt that there is an undeniable connection between her and Waka.

Overall, The Dead Lands is a journey into a new afterlife, one that the majority of American audiences will be introduced to for the first time. While this is a Māori story, it’s one that will have quickly fans from genre lovers all backgrounds with its mythology, action, and of course, Mehe.

Episode one and two of The Dead Lands will be available exclusively in on Shudder outside New Zealand on January 23rd.

The Dead Lands, Episode 1 - Tell the Dead I'm Coming
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TL;DR

The Dead Lands is a journey into a new afterlife, one that the majority of American audiences will be introduced to for the first time. While this is a Māori story, it’s one that will have quickly fans from genre lovers all backgrounds with its mythology, action, and of course, Mehe.