‘The Dead Lands’ Is a Trippy, Violent Look at Ancient Tribal Warfare
Two Polynesian warriors sit by a fire as an old warrior hacks off the arm of one his fallen opponents to cook over the fire. The younger one, Hongi, tells his new mentor that he’s trying to avenge his father. The men they fought killed him and took his head.
“He did not die a noble death,” Hongi laments.
The old warrior scoffs and asks him if his father should have died like the men they killed that day. “Noble? That is what old men teach boys so they will rush to death for their tribes,” the old warrior tells him “But death is not noble. Nor is life.”
This is The Dead Lands, a 2014 Maori language New Zealand production from director Toa Fraser. It’s a timeless tale of revenge and redemption. The film takes place in a time before written history, when warriors’ deeds lived on in stories told while sitting around campfires.
The Dead Lands is an aesthetically beautiful film that takes full advantage of its Pacific island setting. Misty jungles and rugged volcanic rock cover the rolling hills. This is a land still untamed by highways and condos, yet still touched by war.
The story follows Hongi, played by James Rolleston, the son of a tribal chief. He is thrown into a world of violence when a band of fighters from an opposing tribe turns what was meant to be a peace conference into a pretense for more war. Lead by the arrogant prince Wirepa, they murder Hongi’s father and all of his tribe’s warriors and burn the village.
As the band of murderous fighters return home, Wirepa decides to take a short cut through the dead lands. His campanions warn him that the land is cursed, and that the spirits won’t be happy, nor will the flesh eating monster. But his pride gets the best of him — he orders them to follow.
Hongi pursues, and after speaking to his long dead grandmother in the spirit world, seeks out the feared monster to help him fight Wirepa. In truth, the monster is a human being — a hulking killing machine known only as “The Warrior.”
Though Hongi is the protagonist, The Warrior is the star. He’s portrayed by Maori actor Lawrence Makoare, a New Zealander best known for his turn as the Uruk-hai warlord Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Much like Lurtz, The Warrior is a large and violent being born out of violence.
In many ways, Makoare is far more terrifying as a mere man than any orc or supernatural beast. He has a contempt for life in his eyes and kills with no remorse. He laughs, dances and relishes in the bloodshed as he clubs his enemies to death.
But beneath his veneer of hatred is a broken man, shamed by the terrible and dishonorable secrets he lives with. Even as he curses the world, he craves redemption. He’s a layered character, scarred and shaped by a life of violence, and Makoare deftly captures both his rage and his sorrow.
The Warrior teaches Hongi about the realities of battle. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. These fighters openly talk about — and take part in — head hunting and cannibalism.
The combat is visceral and brutal, waged with spears and clubs adorned with sharkteeth. Blood flows, necks crack and The Warrior relishes in the pain he inflicts on his opponents. The fighters lunge, taunt and shout as they face each other. They seek to earn an “honorable death” — one that will be remembered and passed down by those who saw it.
In the stories passed down, honor earns them immortality.
The Dead Lands is a trippy meditation on violence, machismo and revenge. It explores the politics of tribal warfare and of blood debts, and how often things done “in the name of honor” are often truly dishonest and selfish.
Though technology may have changed, many things about war do not.