Those scowling, tattoo-faced and tongue-licking haka displays that New Zealand’s Maori people trot out for tourists and rugby fans are put to their original purpose in “The Dead Lands,” an unblinkingly fierce and bloody tale of slaughter and revenge.
Set around the time of first contact with the outside world, it’s about treachery that breaks a longstanding peace between two once-warring tribes.
Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) shows up with an armed party to visit the cave graves of his ancestors in “The Dead Lands,” territory looked-over and respected by another tribe. He visits, by himself, just so he can hurl skulls at rocks and provoke a confrontation.
But young Hongi (James Rolleston) witnesses the desecration. Even his father, the chief, cannot keep the peace. With this knowledge out there, Wirepa has to start the war himself, just to preserve his besmirched honor.
A massacre follows, Hongi is among the survivors, unjustly ashamed of his role in this. He flees into the haunted forests, seeking the guidance of his dead ancestors (Rena Owen) and the help of the demonic “monster” who guards the sacred ground.
Toa Fraser’s film pairs the kid up with the gigantic, aged “monster,” who seems more human and ill-tempered than supernatural. In an age when weapons were spears and clubs, the biggest and the fiercest must have seemed immortal.
Veteran Maori actor Lawrence Makoare makes this warrior a gruesomely amusing savage — pitiless in combat, dining on the flesh of fallen foes, trash-talking enemies to make them lose their focus.
“Make a joke about their mother,” he counsels (in Maori with English subtitles). “That usually works for me.”
The boy and the “monster” stalk the raiding party over mountain and through rainforest, fighting, bleeding, having visions and even running into a pretty good facsimile of Xena, the warrior princess (Raukura Turei, terrific).
The fights are grisly and personal, the boy’s journey to manhood uneven and the pauses many — too many for a story that screams out for a more breathless treatment, a tale that should be told at a sprint, not a saunter.
But those brutish visages in the fight scenes are even scarier when you know that the guy sticking his tongue out at you plans to bash your brains in, and not just tear a rugby ball out of your hands.
MPAA Rating: R for brutal bloody violence
Cast: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Raukura Turei, Rena Owen
Credits: Directed by Toa Fraser, written by Glenn Standring. A Magnet/Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:47