CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
The Dead Lands is an odd film indeed: a Maori-language combination of rites of passage drama and brutal action thriller set in an unspecified distant past, with a leavening of supernatural horror and topped off with an 80s style synthesiser soundtrack of the Giorgio Moroder or Tangerine Dream ilk that surprisingly doesn't sound out of place. But it's a mixture of elements that works very well (barring a little confusion I had in the early stages) and it's a pity that it's probably not going to be widely seen as it deserves.
It initially seems to be a simple diplomatic meeting between tribes to visit and pay respect to their ancestors' graves. This suddenly turns to threats of war amid accusations of desecration, and the visiting tribe's leader Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) demands justice. But it's merely a pretext to wipe out the tribe completely - except the chief's young and callow son Hongi (James Rolleston) inadvertently escapes the carnage and vows revenge. The journey to track the killers takes Hongi into The Dead Lands, an empty wasteland supposedly inhabited by a terrifying demon, but actually an old warrior king (Lawrence Makoare) with whom Hongi teams up...
At its heart, The Dead Lands is actually a pretty conventional revenge thriller in terms of its plotting (the idea of the tribe's sole survivor taking revenge for his family's massacre is the starting point for Conan The Barbarian) but it scores highly in the setting: the wild and untouched New Zealand of tribal times. The warriors (whose displays of fury and aggression feature the kind of tongue waving and wild gesticulation that we now know primarily from the All Blacks' rugby haka) are actually genuinely scary guys, and the well-staged fight scenes are bloody, visceral and vicious, using weapons which look like sharpened bones, but they're never sadistic and nasty for the sake of it: they're part of the film's natural world. (Incidentally, since this is an issue that sadly keeps coming up these days when talking about movies, there isn't very much in the way of female characters in The Dead Lands, but again, it doesn't feel wrong for the film's world.)
Much is made throughout of reverence for one's ancestors; everything is done primarily with the idea of honouring and respecting previous generations (the villains' motivations are primarily to do with burial rites) and that includes breaking the cycle of violence and retaliation at the end. With its ancient setting and unfamiliar language, the film does bring to mind Mel Gibson's bonkers Apocalypto - and the Maori language is apparently spoken by far fewer people than that film's supposedly obscure Maya dialect - and this is a much better film. It's also reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn's marvellous Valhalla Rising and The Dead Lands is certainly on that level. I enjoyed it, and I would have liked to have seen it get a wider release.