Shudder launches a new series this week, The Dead Lands.
Ep 1: Tell the Dead I’m Coming
by Rachel Willis
For anyone who thinks the zombie genre has been thoroughly mined of ideas, you might be pleasantly surprised by the New Zealand horror drama, The Dead Lands.
The best thing about writer/creator Glenn Standing’s show is that it’s more than a tale of the dead coming back to life. Rooted in the indigenous Maori culture and religion of New Zealand, the setting is Aotearoa “in the time of the stories.” As the credits play, we’re shown the gorgeous natural splendor of this world while the camera rolls over scenic vistas.
The peaceful atmosphere is destroyed as the credits end and the camera focuses on a bloody wahaika. A scene of carnage unfolds, and we’re introduced to Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka), a person “more monster than man.” As the narrative opens, we learn this monstrous man may be the only hope for restoring the balance between the living and the dead. When Waka is barred from entering the afterlife, he returns to earth to seek honor to atone for his many crimes.
The opening episode of The Dead Lands is a bit clunky. There’s a lot to set up in the space of 44 minutes. The pacing stumbles as much of the focus of this episode is devoted to helping the audience understand what has gone wrong in Aotearoa. The veil between the living and dead is falling away, and the dead seek to harm the living. Why this is happening is the heart of show’s mystery.
However, the weaker elements are far overshadowed by the stronger moments and the promise of what’s to come. Waka is a thoroughly engrossing character. Unfortunately, we’re only given a glimpse of his morally repugnant past. Perhaps his history will be explored in future episodes, but when Waka runs into Mehe (Darneen Christian), a woman seeking his help, he comes across as a curmudgeon rather than someone to be feared.
Though Waka has an agenda behind his agreement to help Mehe, he never seems untrustworthy. He’s a character easy to like when, based on what we’ve been told, he should be someone who makes us question our own moral compass.
As Mehe, Christian is a bit stiff compared to the charismatic Tuhaka, but their relationship has the potential to grow into something truly captivating to watch.
There is more than enough intrigue to attract viewers to this show and keep them interested.
Ep 2: The Sins of the Fathers
by Rachel Willis
Where the first episode tends to drag, the second episode of The Dead Lands opens in a sprint. Beginning with a human sacrifice, new characters are introduced: villains both living and dead, members of Mehe’s tribe who might not be trustworthy, and others who might have the answers Waka and Mehe seek.
The mystery of who “broke the world” becomes the central focus in this episode, though many thrilling scenes are devoted to the politics of Mehe’s tribe.
After an attack on her tribe in Tell the Dead I’m Coming, her brother, Rangi, and the rest of the tribe sought refuge with their uncle, a powerful shaman who might have insight into what has caused the imbalance between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Though their uncle welcomes them with open arms, there is something sinister afoot. Mehe is suspicious, and in this episode, Darneen Christian better embodies her character.
While Waka still has his mission, Mehe is given her own hero’s journey to complete. By giving our two main characters their own challenges and desires, the opposite nature of the characters is heightened. Waka is a man who cares for no one, while Mehe is devoted to the well-being of her tribe.
Despite their opposite natures, the chemistry between the two flourishes as Waka’s connection to Mehe deepens. Though Waka professes to dislike her, it’s clear she’s the closest human connection he’s ever had. There are even a few comedic moments shared between the two, and those liven the otherwise tense atmosphere.
Though still plagued by a few missteps, particularly some strange cinematography choices, the second episode successfully builds upon the first. With The Sins of the Fathers, the show has found its footing.