Not Just Another Zombie Story

Indigenous people all over the world take pride in their storytelling abilities and unique cultural narratives that have been passed down through generations. The exact tales and myths vary from culture to culture but one truth threads through: we are best at telling our own stories. This fact is evident in The Dead Lands, the adventure series that is set in a fantastical Māori world and is inspired by tradition and tales that are still vital to the existence of the Māori people today.

The first episode opens with the murder of Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka) whose ancestors send him back to Aoteoroa, the Māori name for New Zealand which is known in this series as the world of the living. He must redeem himself for his sinful actions before he is allowed to pass peacefully into death. Upon his return, Waka finds that someone has “broken the world”, allowing the spirits of the newly dead to scour the earth and feed off the people. Sure, the ‘undead’ are like zombies but this story does not fall into the typical faults of the zombie genre. Worried about the future with the supernatural on the loose, a young girl, Mehe (Darneen Christian), seeks the infamous Waka Nuku Rau in hope that he can help return balance to Aoteroroa. This unlikely pair of anti-hero and heroine might be the only hope for the world to find peace again.

The Dead Lands’ intricately detailed world is slowly revealed throughout the entire season, continually gripping the audience’s attention as Waka and Mehe navigate through the twists and gorey-goodness they encounter. Who really is Waka and what past actions led to his inability to peacefully join the dead after his murder? And why is Mehe the one on this journey with such a vicious warrior? These questions drive the entire season forward as Waka and Mehe battle forward, learning from one another, as they attempt to heal the world.

Though the show’s main story deals with heavy talk of death and scary monsters, there is a special humor that stands out. I am a big fan of dark, creepy horror stories but it takes true talent to add in that extra layer of comedy when trying to stay sinister. This bit of playfulness is necessary to keep the show moving, as the atmosphere is heavy and the comedic release is there to help carry the burden that Waka and Mehe carry, while also reminding the audience that these characters are just as human as we are.

While The Dead Lands beautifully incorporates the Māori language into the English-written script and embraces cultural elements that are specific to the Indigenous group it is created by, my biggest worry about this production has less to do with the series itself. Many who make up the non-Indigenous audience are uneducated on Native existence, especially in the United States and Ireland, the two places other than New Zealand where this series is streaming.

This goes for any show that is set in an ancient time as much of the rhetoric around Native people is that we are extinct, something only occurring in history books or genre movies. This element should not deter anyone from watching The Dead Lands, as it is evident the series had many Māori hands and minds that assisted in the production, which has inspired me to jump into my own research to understand more of the Māori history and how that plays into their everyday life in 2020. My hope is that this happens to everyone who enjoys this series.

Ultimately, The Dead Lands is a brilliant show that is perfect for anyone who digs narratives with the undead or intense fantasy dramas. Add the Indigenous aspect and viewers might realize this show is the exact opposite of narratives in the same genre, which are commonly white-washed and full of disappointing plots. “The modern Māori world thrives because our story traditions insist we respect the past before we explore the potential of the future,” says producer Tainui Stephens “with The Dead Lands, we’re proud to bring our people and those traditions to global audiences.” I can’t wait to see what they do with Season Two.

Rating: ★★★★½

Created by: Glenn Standring

Cast: Te Kohe Tuhaka, Darneen Christian, Vicky Haughton, Calvin Tuteao