The "Dead Man" is a reference to God.
Edge borrowed the "wake up dead man" phrase from a chain-gang song. He wrote the verse and the chorus, and Bono finished it. Says Bono: "Really, this is in the tradition of the psalms of David, which offer an honest dialogue with God. I always wondered why was David so beloved of God? I think it was probably honesty. Because in a lot of the psalm's he's really giving out: 'Where are you when you're needed? Call yourself God? Look, I'm surrounded by my enemies. You got me into this, get me out of here!' It's so direct. I think it's very important that people feel able to address God from whatever state they're in, whether that's devotion or anger. Both are present here."
U2 guitarist The Edge started this as a gothic rock song during the Zooropa sessions, with the working title, "The Dead Man." He says in the book U2 by U2: "It began as an escapist concept and then slowly, almost like the coming up of the dawn, the morning after, it ended with the realization that there is no escape and you're back to the grim realities. The first line of that song was written in my car at dawn as I arrived back in the driveway of my house in Dublin, about to walk into the house on my own. 'Jesus help me, I'm alone in the world and a f--ked-up world it is too.' That is really the truth of our lot. You are on your own, even in a crowd. Whatever you're doing, ultimately, it's about you and your Maker."
This was intended as a live B-side, but they liked the results and decided to put it on the album.
On the cover of Zooropa, purple letters spell out WAKEUPDE. It is a reference to this track, which was not finished yet.