The 1973 Olds 88 in Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy isn’t just any classic—it’s “The Classic”
At the beginning of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, unwitting characters vacationing in a remote cabin find a recording. When they make the mistake of listening to it, they hear Professor Knowby’s voice reading passages from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis—The Book of the Dead. They don’t know it yet, but they’ve awakened an ancient evil in the woods. The Professor warns ominously, “The first few pages warn that these enduring creatures may lie dormant but are never truly dead.”
The Evil Dead was Raimi’s debut feature film. The trilogy’s first entry gets short shrift, but it stands on its own as a solid, inventive, legitimately scary horror movie. Evil Dead II is Raimi’s slapstick horror masterpiece, a sequel-remake hybrid, a revision and expansion of the first film that’s equal parts The Three Stooges and the Grand Guignol. It has both more humor and more pathos than its predecessor: Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) is forced to kill his possessed girlfriend twice, then fights his own hand and cuts it off with a chainsaw when it turns against him. After time-traveling at the end of Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness finds Ash in 1300 AD, “the hero from the sky” who battles Deadites and destroys evil just as The Book of the Dead prophesied.
Sam Raimi made his trilogy with friends and family and an impossibly low budget. The ingenious camera work, practical effects, and sound design of these films became Raimi’s hallmark and helped immerse the audience in Ash’s nightmare. Another constant in his filmography is “The Classic,” Raimi’s yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88. It appears in each of his films, even his western The Quick and the Dead, in which the crew allegedly built a covered wagon over its chassis.
In The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, Ash’s car seems to be the characters’ only means of escape—but their attempts prove futile when the demons won’t let them leave, taking control of the car and destroying the bridge, their only way out. The car has its most prominent role in 1992’s Army of Darkness when Ash modifies it into a Deadite-demolishing machine. It goes out in a fiery blaze of glory—until Raimi resurrected it once more for the series Ash vs. Evil Dead.
Sam Raimi has featured the Delta 88 in his movies since he started making them. The Oldsmobile first belonged to Raimi’s father, who eventually passed it on to his son, but when they were teenagers, Raimi and childhood friend Bruce Campbell borrowed the car to use in their Super-8 films. In Campbell’s autobiography If Chins Could Kill—Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, he explains, “This damn car has been in more movies than I have! For some reason, it became the all-purpose car that appeared in almost every Super-8 film we ever made. When Sam began to make feature films, he kept using it—starting with Evil Dead in 1979. Sam dubbed it ‘The Classic.’” (Campbell’s ‘nicknames’ for the car are less affectionate and include “Sam’s crappy Delta 88” and “a rusted hulk.”)
In these early years of their friendship and collaboration, Bruce Campbell’s car was an Opel Isuzu. The Isuzu also showed up in some of their early films, and Raimi referred to it as a “pseudo-foreign sub-classic.” Campbell said, “The best any other car could hope for was ‘sub-classic.’” For Raimi, all other cars paled in comparison to his Olds 88.
Even back in 1987 the car wasn’t running, and it had to be transported on a truck from Raimi’s home state of Michigan to North Carolina where they were shooting Evil Dead II. Campbell explained that Raimi’s love for the car bordered on obsession: “By this time, Dave Goodman was the transportation coordinator and the car became the bane of his existence. It was just a pain in the ass. Sam needed specific things in the car to work because he had certain shots within the car that he needed and he would never bend. I said, ‘Sam, you can’t do it this way—it’s going to cost you this much money,’ and he says, ‘I don’t care. I want it the way I want it.’ It was almost like he was crazy about it.”
“The Classic” has evolved over the years, and most of its parts have been replaced. It’s only through Raimi’s sheer force of will that the car is still (barely) kicking. In a conversation with Raimi published in Campbell’s book from 2001, Raimi described its condition: “The basic body and frame is still original. Well, okay, the motor is not original. Most of the working engine parts are probably not original. Some of the upholstery is not original, but it’s got the original dash and steering wheel. The body has a lot of Bondo, I admit.” Raimi’s put an extraordinary amount of work into the car to keep it around, and it even gets its own stunt doubles so the original won’t be destroyed.
Campbell’s relationship with the car is a little more complicated. He recounts trying (and failing) to “kill” the car during the filming of Crimewave when he authorized a mechanic to gut it to reduce the car’s weight for a chase sequence, but when it returned for filming Ash vs. Evil Dead in New Zealand, Campbell was happy to see it. In Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor, he wrote: “This was the actual car Sam’s mother used to drop us off to watch A Clockwork Orange during high school. [ . . . ] This car knew where the bodies were buried. It had some deep history. I’m not a method actor by any means, but it was really cool to have that crappy car back. It meant a lot. It made this real.” In an interview with ComicBook.com about Ash vs. Evil Dead, Campbell claimed he knows the car better than Raimi at this point. The Olds 88 may have finally won over its biggest critic.
The first-generation Olds 88, which debuted in 1949, was a proto-muscle car, arguably America’s first: it was fast and lightweight but it had a powerful engine. Its streamlined design, along with its overhead-valve, high-compression “Rocket” V-8 engine, made the car a force to be reckoned with, and it dominated the NASCAR circuits. By the mid-1950s, other cars outpaced it, but the 88 remained Oldsmobile’s top-selling line through 1974.
But the car’s long, impressive history isn’t what inspires Sam Raimi’s love for the car; it’s the history he’s shared with his own Delta 88. “The Classic” wasn’t the best, coolest car ever made, but it was Raimi’s first car, and a car so beloved that Sam Raimi transformed it into a cinematic icon.