The Plague Dogs (1982)


In perhaps the grimmest animated movie ever made, two dogs escape certain death at a laboratory research facility only to find themselves forever on the run from the scientists and the local sheep farmers. Director Martin Rosen (Watership Down) spectacularly defies any and all expectations you might have about an animated movie with The Plague Dogs, his second Richard Adams adaptation. The two dogs, voiced by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin, have suffered drowning exercises and brain surgeries when we first meet them. They literally escape the incinerator before the opening ten minutes are over.

The two dogs befriend a fox (James Bolam) who helps them avoid capture while living off stray sheep. The smaller dog insists they can find a good ‘master’ to take care of them, but encounters with humans do not go well. Two people are accidentally killed, and when the public learns the research facility was experimenting with bubonic plague, the military is called in to find and exterminate our four-legged protagonists.

The audacity of The Plague Dogs is truly something to admire. But then again, why shouldn’t an animated movie be allowed to exploit such sinister themes? It’s certainly not for children. Anyone whose seen Watership Down knows this author and director aren’t afraid to kill off furry little animals, and The Plague Dogs easily tops Watership Down in bloodshed. One human receives as shotgun blast to the face and in the uncut version of the movie, another is eaten by the dogs. (If it makes you feel better, they were really, really hunry.) But even for an adult, this movie is a bleak affair. What affected me the most is John Hurt’s character, Snitter. It’s bad enough he’s been lobotomized, but the poor thing is also haunted by the memory of accidentally causing his old master’s death in a traffic accident.

The animation style is not my favorite and the scoring is hit and miss, but The Plague Dogs is a remarkable story about making peace with the inevitable. It reminded me a lot of Thelma & Louise and The Return of the King — stories about characters who are so changed by their experiences, that life can never be the same for them again. If you’re a lover of dogs, beware: this movie could really fuck you up.