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The Dead Lands: Māori History, Culture & Traditions Explained

Glenn Standring’s zombie horror series The Dead Lands features the Māori people and integral pieces of their traditions, culture, and history.

Glenn Standring’s new Shudder horror series The Dead Lands features zombies, the paranormal, and the historical significance of Māori culture and traditions. Set in ancient Māori times, it follows the story of the undead warrior Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka) searching for honor in the living realm. What makes his search so horrific are the undead that he must face in order to find peace in the afterlife. The series is both horrific and historical, as it pays such close attention to detail in order to represent the Māori people as accurately as possible.

After dying, Waka Nuku Rau is sent to a location that resembles the concept of purgatory where he is informed that he has brought dishonor to his ancestors and is not welcome into the afterlife. He can either remain in purgatory or return to the realm of the living to gain honor in the eyes of his ancestors. The warrior choses to return. After he arrives, Waka Nuku Rau quickly finds that the world has become overrun by the living dead. Once partnering up with Mehe (Darneen Christian), he discovers the true origins of the zombies and the curse based in Māori mythology.

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The zombies are unlike the genre’s most common flesh-eating undead human. Zombies normally follow the structure of George A. Romero’s films that spawned from Night Of The Living Dead (1968). The formulaic nature features an unknown origin of the virus that causes people to turn into the undead. It is common to find science or animals as the cause but that does not happen in Standring’s series. The biggest similarity is that they crave human flesh and one bite turns an individual into one. The Dead Lands utilizes the Māori culture and their ancient traditions and culture to create a zombie that is the result of angry gods, omens, and ancient curses.

The history of the Māori goes as far back as the 1300s when the indigenous Polynesian people arrived in New Zealand between 1320 and 1350. After centuries of isolation, they developed their own distinct culture of mythology, language, and crafts that differs from eastern Polynesian people. When Europeans arrived in the country during the 17th century, the Māori people began to adopt western traditions but tensions rose. New Zealanders confiscated their land and displaced the indigenous community. During the 1960s, the Māori protest movement started and they fought against the economic and social issues that continues to disenfranchise them.

Today, approximately 750,000 Māori people live in New Zealand and continue to honor their culture but their fight for equity is ongoing. As their history is relatively unknown, The Dead Lands offers a unique way of highlighting the indigenous people’s significance. The series focuses on the era that the Māori people were isolated from New Zealanders. Archaeologists and historians have found that they had a strong warrior culture that included elaborate canoes and weapons of greenstone. Their tradition follows four core concepts of tapu (sacred), nao (non-sacred), mana (authority), and wairu (spirit). All of which are present in The Dead Lands.

In historical documentation, the Māori people commonly have symbols and markings permanently tattooed on their faces. This form of tattooing is known as tā moko. Traditionally, the permanent markings indicated high social status and authority (mana). It is also associated with the shift from childhood to adulthood. Historically, tā moko differs from tattooing in the sense that it is not always a permanent ink marking. Instead, it can also be a skin carving that is chiseled into the person’s face that leaves grooves with the design of traditional tā moko symbols.

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Waka Nuku Rau is introduced as a warrior who uses paddle shaped weaponry to kill his enemies as well as the undead. Once he meets Mehe, she gives him the gift of a weapon of greenstone that is sacred to her village. This is a direct link between the artifacts that archeologists have uncovered that show that most of the finest made weaponry was crafted from greenstone. Standring’s use of this symbol shows an immense attention to detailing the history of the Māori people in the series but it is not the only symbolism present in it.

Mehe and Waka Nuku Rau both have visible permanent facial markings. While Mehe has the ink version of tā moko, Waka Nuku Rau has skin carvings around the majority of his face. The warrior’s permanent skin altering alludes to his high ranking of being the strongest warrior in The Dead Lands’ Māori culture. Mehe’s could reference her youth or beauty, as it is much smaller than older women and men featured in the series. The largest influence of Māori culture on The Dead Lands by far is their religion and its ties to the supernatural. The indigenous people in the series believe that vengeful ancestors and gods have placed a curse on their land, which results in the undead.

While The Dead Lands is an entirely fictitious account of Māori ancient times that includes the unlikely situation of the dead rising to eat the living, it does feature so much historical accuracy that the series provides educational elements of these people. There is overwhelming scarce documentation on Māori history during the years that they isolated from New Zealanders. As a result, the little history that is available is utilized throughout the entirety of The Dead Lands from tā moko, to their traditional dress, weaponry, and their supernatural beliefs.

The addition of zombies can be read in various ways. Primarily, it is assumed to just be a plot device but due to the historical documentation of warrior culture, it could also be understood as cannibalism. It was tradition for warriors to participate in cannibalism during the Classic period that The Dead Lands seems to reference the most. Therefore, the zombies that Waka Nuku Rau faces could be a direct reflection of the warrior tradition of eating human flesh. It is unclear whether or not Standring chose to include the undead in order to reference this piece of Māori history but it is something to consider as inspiration for the series.

The Dead Lands offers such an important history of the Māori people despite the little information that is available on their customs, traditions, culture, and religion but it ensures to utilize every minute detail of it. As far as historical horror goes, this series has proven to be one of the most well-developed in the entire genre. Glenn Standring left no stone unturned for researching the Māori people for The Dead Lands. As of May 21, 2020, the series is available to stream through Shudder.

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