In the land of Aotearoa, the dead walk among the living.
The warrior, Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka), once again finds himself in battle, but this time something unexpected happens. He dies. But the dead want nothing to do with him. After fighting with a vicious, undead soul, an older ancestor appears. “Did you think we’d let someone like you into our most cherished place?”
It seems that Waka’s ancestors refuse him in the afterlife, but they will let him return to the land of the living. There is much for him to do, the older man says. “Redeem yourself in the world. Find honor so that you may be forgiven your sins.”
And there are so many sins to forgive.
Thus begins the first episode of Shudder’s fantastic new series THE DEAD LANDS, an adaptation of director Toa Fraser’s 2014 film of the same name.
The first episode of a TV show is full of challenges. You have to establish the world, the characters, and the stakes all while giving audiences the feeling of forward movement. THE DEAD LANDS tackles these challenges impressively, weaving each piece of the puzzle together in a way that feels so organic you barely notice it’s happening.
After Waka is sent back to the land of the living, he encounters the same type of vicious undead person near his home and kills him. With just this fight, we know that this type of supernatural threat isn’t just found in the afterlife. Something sinister has taken root in Aotearoa.
Soon after, Waka discovers Mehe (Darneen Christian) hiding on his land. It turns out, this otherworldly threat isn’t just haunting Waka. “The priestess of my tribe says the veil between light and dark is breaking,” she tells Waka. “And those things out there, they’re proof of it aren’t they.”
She’s come to find him because, if the legends about him are true, he is the only warrior fierce enough to help save her tribe from this terrible threat. But what exactly does this threat mean? Why have the dead come back? And what do they want?
In a post Game of Thrones world, THE DEAD LANDS is a welcome addition to epic fantasy television and judging from the first episodes, it’s got what it takes to become a favorite for genre fans.
Directors Peter Metehrangi Tikao Burger and Michael Hurst have created a world that is both beautiful and threatening. And while this is high fantasy in some ways, it always stays grounded thanks to the themes of family, honor, and redemption.
The cast is filled with high caliber performances by a majority Māori cast with standout performances by its two leads. Darneen Christian’s Mehe is strong but vulnerable as she navigates a world that is falling apart, while Te Kohe Tuhaka’s performance as Waka Nuku Rau balances the fierce strength and cavalier outlook of a warrior with a blundering fish-out-of-water attitude that’s endlessly compelling.
In fact, when I started in on the show I had no idea just how much humor I would find. The dangers in Aotearoa are very real, but it’s clear writer Glenn Standring understands the importance of injecting moments of levity into a show that could easily become over serious. Most of this humor is given to our main character, and Tuhaka pulls it off with the ease of an accomplished comedian, from coaching combat training (“Insult their mother. That usually works.”) to an aside to the ancestors he hopes are watching his progress (“Once I took whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. See how I’ve changed?”).
But THE DEAD LANDS’ accomplishments don’t stop there. This is also a beautiful show filled with gorgeous costumes by Sara Beale, intricate makeup designed by Deirdre Cowley, and breathtaking cinematography from John Cavill and David Paul.
One of my favorite cinematic choices can be found in the very first scene. Waka has entered the afterlife. Everything we see is in deep, ethereal sepia tones, except for Waka. He is in full color, a man filled with life standing among the dead. The land of the living may be in grave danger, but with Waka Nuku Rau on their side, they may have a fighting chance.
Episodes 1 & 2 of THE DEAD LANDS will premiere on Shudder in the U.S., Canada, UK and Ireland on Januray 23, 2020, with subsequent episodes premiering every Thursday.