Rowf (voiced by Christopher Benjamin) is drowning. He fights to keep his head above water but his strength is weakening and eventually he slips beneath the surface, unable to struggle any more. As his body sinks to the bottom of the tank, he is hooked by the collar and brought out, placed on a surgical table and revived; still weak, he is then returned to his cage with the rest of the dogs used for vivisection. Snitter (John Hurt), who is kept in the cage next to his, notices that the mesh between them is loose and burrows his way in beside Rowf as they damn the "white coats" who have put them in this situation. But then they notice that the door to Rowf's cage has been left ajar...
After the success of Watership Down, producer and director Martin Rosen settled on adapting another Richard Adams novel for animation, and The Plague Dogs was the result. Not that it was welcomed in the same way as its predecessor, as this was a much more gloomy work, a sorrowful howl of anguish at the way animals are treated for experimentation in laboratories not only across the United Kingdom, but across the world as well. Understandably there was very little to be cheerful about here, and its late autumn-encroaching winter setting did little to lighten the overall tone of deep seated misery.
The film was notable for being animated without any rotoscoping, that is without any footage being shot so the filmmakers could animate over it, and this was before computers really took over in the making of cartoons, meaning every frame was hand drawn and coloured. Not that this is an especially colourful film, in fact you could be mistaken at times for thinking this a monochrome motion picture with its grey landscapes and overcast skies featuring prominently. All this leaves a feeling of not so much desperation in the plight of the two dogs, but more a sense of futility, as if even though they have escaped they are still doomed.
While you may spend most of the film wondering when the two main characters are going to die, never the most uplifting of experiences at the movies, you can at least be engrossed in their fight for survival. When Rowf and Snitter (Hurt's voiceover work here is excellent in its sympathy) realise that they can leave the room where their fellow dogs are kept, they end up hiding in an incinerator. They have a narrow escape when another dog, which has died, is shovelled in with them and they scramble out of the place through a handily-dog-sized vent just before the gas is switched on. Free at last!
However, their problems are just beginning because it soon becomes clear that they have to find food and shelter. Snitter is a canny hound and recommends to Rowf that they find a kindly master to take care of them, but this is easier said than done and he has the disability of his recent brain operation holding him back, confusing his mind and dredging up his guilt for accidentally killing his previous master in a road accident. Actually, Snitter is one unlucky chap, because when it looks as if he has found someone to take care of him he mistakenly hits the trigger on the man's rifle and shoots his face off. As you can see, the dejection of the plot is laid on pretty thick, and the action is always presented from the dogs' point of view to render it all the more painful for animal lovers. Although Rowf and Snitter team up with a wily fox called the Tod (James Bolam), you can tell they are not going to make it when the possibility of them carrying bubonic plague arises and the need to hunt them down is all the more pressing. The film is curiously unsentimental in its attempts to wake the viewer up to animals' plight, but was more effective than its detractors might have admitted, repetitive as it is. Music by Patrick Gleeson.