An ode to DVD menus

Contrary to much of the narrative today about file-sharing, the late 1990s and early 2000s were a dream for buying physical media. Sure, college kids loaded up their computers with bootleg music downloads from Kazaa and Napster. And yeah, a handful of them shared movies, too. But for most of us who didn’t go to a college with dorms—and thus fast internet speeds—downloading media, especially movies, was years (a decade, even), away. For us, this was the time of wacky special editions, bad remasters, gold discs, cheap vinyl, and more.

It was also the decade of the DVD. And with the DVD, we got a couple decade’s worth of weird ass DVD menus.

I got my first DVD player in high school as a gift (if I remember correctly it came with a selection of movies I could get for free—postage not included—of which I picked the Lost in Space reboot and Stargate). Originally, the DVD discs were two-sided, meaning you had to flip them midway through the movie, but eventually they figured out the tech to put both layers on the same side (you’d occasionally see ads for “dual-layer” discs in this era).

I remember going to Suncoast in the mall to look for movies, which, back then, cost anywhere between $20 and $40. You could usually score popular American releases on sale for around $20But I remember paying a high premium for Ghost in the Shell and Akira (the high cost of entry probably prevented me from turning into a total anime nerd, I guess).

Aside from being a higher quality, digital version of a movie, these DVDs also had tons of extra features. I assume there was an entire cottage industry in Hollywood in the early ‘00s just churning out the strange trivia games, outtake reels, trailers, different cuts, and, of course, director’s commentaries. I often enjoyed these commentary tracks, especially the weirder ones, like Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas, which brought in Hunter S. Thompson, my personal hero when I was around the age of 17.

But the thing that tied all these features together was the DVD menu screen. This screen greeted you when you first booted up a movie (and greeted you again six hours later when you’d wake up to the menu looping on the TV still).

At their best, DVD menus took the vibe of a movie and condensed it into a short, graphical experience. Fight Club’s menu cut into a fake FBI warning with Brad Pitt’s laugh, then looped an absolute banger of a track from the Dust Brothers (the Blu-ray apparently pops up a menu for Never Been Kissed to troll the viewer for a second). I thought this was edgy as hell. House of a 1000 Corpses started yelling at you to pick something if you waited too long. Memento included a psychological test and a hidden menu for watching the movie in chronological order. Wayne’s World 2 simulated scrolling through cable channels late at night, complete with menuRequiem for a Dream looked like a commercial in a way that made it difficult to even navigate. The Ring had a mystery button that leads you to the full video from the deadly video from the movie, which you cannot pause, fast-forward, or back out of.

Even boring, mostly static menus could be interesting. 12 Monkeys had the logo circling inside Bruce Willis’ eye while a spooky track played in the background. Sin City was similarly just cool as hell to listen to and watch.

The general aesthetic of these menus bounces between ‘90s CD-ROM games and ‘00s Flash websites, and the aesthetic isn’t necessarily tied to the year of the release. The menu’s job was to set you up for the movie itself. You’d pop the disc in the DVD player first, then wander off to grab snacks, drinks, or blankets. While the menu looped, you’d dim the lights and get comfortable before hitting the Play button. It gave you time to pause, to prep yourself for the incoming movie.

I cannot count the number of times I had long conversations with friends on the phone or in person with some random movie menu looping in the background. They were a backdrop to movie night, bored nights at home alone, and everything in-between.

Blu-ray menus don’t seem to achieve this, at least in my limited experience. Half of them want access to the internet for some reason and the other half force you to watch trailers before you can even get to the menu, which means by the time you’re there you’re ready to watch the damn movie, not bask in the looping glow of some random scene while part of the soundtrack plays. And of course, none of this exists with streaming.

It’s too bad, because a well done DVD menu implanted itself on your memory. It became part of the movie and the experience. Done well, they were as memorable as the movies themselves. They gave watching movies at home a new layer of experience that wasn’t meant to replace a theater, but still provided enough extra panache to feel special.

(As an aside, while I was researching different DVD menus, I happened on the @dvdmenus Twitter account, which seems to be an automated account that links to YouTube videos of, you guessed it, DVD menus. However, they have, apparently, moved over to Parler, the alt-right garbage social network. Which is bizarre to me for many reasons, not least of which is the concept of a YouTube channel that records the menu from a DVD being politically motivated)