“Tell the Dead I’m Coming” makes for a strong start to Shudder’s ancient-Maori action thriller, with enough culture and understated humor to make it stand out.
This recap of The Dead Lands Season 1, Episode 1, “Tell the Dead I’m Coming”, contains spoilers.
The Dead Lands double helping this week kicks off something of an experiment for burgeoning genre streaming network Shudder. The show, an eight-episode fantasy-action-horror-hybrid created by Glenn Standring, is set in an ancient version of New Zealand and will stream on-demand in the present-day version alongside its Shudder release elsewhere in the world. There is clearly a decent amount of money, hype, and talent behind this project, and its success will likely help to determine the success – and certainly the distribution models – of Shudder in the future. I’m pleased to report, then, that The Dead Lands Episode 1, “Tell the Dead I’m Coming”, is pretty good, all things considered.
Steeped in Maori culture but still taking care to hit the expected beats in each of the genres it happily plays with, our anti-hero is Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka), a fearsome warrior maverick who wears a very short grass skirt and kills people violently – until some people kill him, and he snaps awake in a kind of underworld where he’s tasked with regaining his lost honor by returning to the world of the living and cleansing it of undead invaders. Nobody says the word “zombie” out loud, but the bloodthirsty marauders kind of speak for themselves.
Waka’s purer partner in crime is Mehe (Darneen Christian), an initially vulnerable but spirited young woman who needs his help. And while he’s reticent to give it, we wouldn’t have much of a show if he didn’t, so together the two resolve – through much bickering, some of it quite funny – to save first her father and then the world from an otherworldly invasion of warrior spirits.
That’s a fun premise! And, at least in The Dead Lands Episode 1, it mostly works, thanks in large part to an understated but very present sense of humor which helps to temper all the violent beheadings and frantic chase sequences. “Tell the Dead I’m Coming” has plenty of action, some of it sneakily shot so as to save money on practical effects, but most of it works to complement the show’s toing and froing when it comes to tone. Conundrums like Mehe dealing with her badly suffering father and Waka being told by his ghostly mother (Vicky Haughton) to kill his new companion and drink her blood, introduce some welcome moral complexity, which is necessary without being overdone.
Filmed on location in New Zealand, this is a nice-looking show, too, and the Maori cultural appreciation feels integral to its identity rather than tokenistic costuming. The story is littered with influences from indigenous rituals and tales; the cast is Maori. It’d be naïve to suggest this isn’t a zombie show because it absolutely is, but it’s also one which doesn’t really feel like a typical zombie show except in those moments when it leans slightly too heavily against well-worn set-piece design.
The Dead Lands Season 1, Episode 1 does a good job of introducing those familiar elements and twisting each in a slightly unusual way, allowing its mismatched central pairing to react to them accordingly. The humor is plentiful without becoming too insufferably knowing or slapstick; when it wants to get serious, “Tell the Dead I’m Coming” is able to, and save for some clunky writing – like, as it happens, the very line from which the episode takes its title – it’s easy to take seriously, too. While it’s difficult to say at this stage quite how the show will pan out, one can only assume this is going to be a worthwhile frontline exclusive for Shudder in the Streaming Wars. Let battle commence.