Everyone has a movie that they probably watched a little too young—a film that has a particularly intense scene, or oddly mature themes to throw at children. For a lot of people, Watership Down is one of those movies. A survival story about rabbits and the many challenges they face can understandably come off as brutal and scary. But what if I told you that the same people behind Watership Down made a film that manages to be even more intense? Allow me to introduce you to The Plague Dogs.
Like Watership Down, The Plague Dogs is based on a book by Richard Adams and centers around animals as the main characters. But unlike Watership Down, which was initially conceived as a story for his children, The Plague Dogs was written for a much older and more mature audience. Adams was always an advocate for animal rights and wrote The Plague Dogs as a jab against testing on animals.
The book and film both open with a very upsetting sequence, in which a large black dog is kept in a chamber of water until it nearly drowns. When it stops struggling, it is fished out and brought back to life. This is the introduction to one of our two main characters, Rowf the dog (Christopher Benjamin). The other dog, Snitter the Fox Terrier (John Hurt), was subjected to various brain experiments that left him hallucinogenic for much of the film. The Plague Dogs follows these two dogs as they break out of the research facility and try to live as wild animals. Meanwhile, the facility is forced to track down the dogs due to the possibility that they were exposed to the bubonic plague. Rowf has no faith in humanity, having never had a loving home before being taken to the facility. But Snitter hopes that the two will find a good home and continues to preach about the nice humans there are in the world, just like his former master. Yes, this story is heavy on animal suffering and will make you want to hug your pets.
After the release of Watership Down in 1978, which was very successful at the box office, director Martin Rosen wanted to repeat the same success. Adams had published The Plague Dogs the year before in 1977 and seemed like the perfect match, with an even darker and more mature storyline. The film was produced by Nepenthe Productions, the same studio that brought Watership Down to life, with many of the same animators returning. The film would be released in 1982, to a dogged performance with audiences.
When The Plague Dogs was given test screenings, Rosen had a hard time finding distributors for the film. This is probably not too surprising; the film gained a PG-13 rating, featured intense sequences, and shockingly ended up telling an even bleaker story than the original book! The film ended up being a flop due to a lack of a distributor and thus having such a limited release with a budget of £900,000 and earning £308,000 at the box office. But like a lot of sad production stories, home media can bring a fresh new audience, though not without a few cuts that is…
When The Plague Dogs was released on VHS, unless you were in Australia, there was no way to get your hands on a full 103-minute copy. This new 83-minute cut removed several scenes to shorten the running time but particularly removed the most shocking chapter of the story. At one point, a gunman named Ackland is hired to track and shoot the dogs. But he ends up falling to his death instead off a rocky cliff. The dogs, starved and desperate in the middle of winter, find his body. The film cuts to a military helicopter searching for the animals with a spotlight and comes across his now-mutilated body, which confirms that the dogs were eating the corpse.
The cut versions of the film were the only available copies for purchase until the late 2000’s, at least in the UK. Umbrella Entertainment released an uncut version sourced from Rosen’s private print of the film. In 2019, American audiences finally got their turn thanks to Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release.
The Plague Dogs is not a film for all audiences; that much can be said. Animals, in general, are innocent beings, after all, and it can be painful to watch them suffer. But there is something beautiful about these two characters and how they continue to persist despite the world relentlessly crashing down around them. At the core of the story, The Plague Dogs is about confronting the inevitable. The film chooses not to include the sugar, clouds, and heavenly choirs that even Watership Down uses to numb the pain. For that, it is a film that deserves to be seen. Just brace yourself and keep your pets close; you will want to hug them.