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Dead Man Walking

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"I removed as much shrapnel from your chest as I could, but there are still some pieces left. I've seen plenty of injuries like that. In my village we call those casualties 'the walking dead,' because they take about a week to reach your heart."
Ho Yinsen, Iron Man

As an idiom, the phrase "dead man walking" is most infamous as a call-out once traditional in American prisons; when the wardens would lead a man on Death Row down the hall, declaring "Dead man walking! Dead man walking here!" Dead Man Walking means Your Days Are Numbered and you and/or the people around you know it. Now that prison wardens no longer use it (least not where they can be noticed), modern use of the term broadened somewhat to other types of doom, even benign "doom" such as losing a job (which may actually be the original meaning, but so far no one's been able to trace it conclusively).

Sometimes, when the police are investigating a "murder" without a body, they find the so-called "victim" alive and well and the police utter "Dead Man Walking?"

Does not have anything to do with The Undead but is often used that way as a pun. Compare Your Days Are Numbered, Whodunnit to Me?, Incurable Cough of Death, Doomy Dooms of Doom.

Invoked by Dead Star Walking. Sometimes used to describe a state in a game that's Unwinnable by Design. Not to be confused with Dead Character Walking, which describes a video game glitch where the player still has control over a dead character.


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    Fan Works 
  • While Joffrey researches Robert Baratheon's health in Purple Days, he briefly tries to find a way to save him from his impending assassination. However, when he finds Pycelle's reconds of the poisoning he's been subjecting Robert to for years and the consequences of his Badass Decay, gluttony and lechery, he grimly realizes that whatever he does, Robert is doomed by the time his "Groundhog Day" Loop starts.

    Films — Animated 
  • Lady and the Tramp: A chilling scene at the pound obliquely references this trope when a cheerfully oblivious dog named Nusty is taken for "the long walk" by a human into a back room, hinting that he's going to be put to sleep.
    Lady: Where is he taking him?
    Toughy: Through the one-way door, sister.
    Lady: You... You mean he's...?

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Bad Black: Lampshaded by VJ Emmie's commentary, saying he has low hopes for Ssali's future after Black starts plotting against him.
    "Hello, dead muzungu!"
  • Dead Man Walking, obviously.
  • As a dog is being led away to be put down at the pound that Lucky's taken to in the Eddie Murphy film version of Dr. Dolittle, one of the dogs comments "dead dog walking."
  • In Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Daffy gets fired from Warner Bros. Studios and is led out of the office by Kate and Bugs calls out "Dead duck walking!"
  • In Night of the Comet, the Technically Living Zombies are doomed to dissolve into dust if they go too long without drinking human blood, and by the end of the film, they've all crumbled into nothingness from starvation.
  • In Iron Man, Yinsen describes a type of bomb victim he and the people in his village refer to as "The Walking Dead".note  These people walk around with bomb shrapnel in their bloodstream, and live for about a week before their organs are torn to shreds. This happens to main character Tony Stark as well, who only survives by having an electromagnet implanted into his chest to keep the shrapnel from tearing his heart to ribbons.
  • In Spider-Man: No Way Home, Otto Octavius, upon meeting Norman Osborn, whom he believed to be deceased, describes him as a 'walking corpse'. This is soon confirmed by Flint Marko, who, much to Otto's disbelief, mentions he died as well.

  • Stephen King's The Green Mile has prison guard Percy Wetmore, who tries to carry out the traditional callout as he leads John Coffey to his cell in E block. The protagonist and supervisor tells him to shut up - by the time the story is set the phrase is becoming deprecated so it established Percy's character as a Jerkass and a later villain.
  • The title of the book and subsequent film and stage adaptation Dead Man Walking, Based on a True Story of a nun who became the spiritual advisor to a Death Row convict.
  • In Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book a wolf who loses a challenge is called the Dead Wolf as long as he remains alive, "which is not long as a rule".
  • Literally the title of a Warhammer 40,000 novel, showcasing the incredibly dour Death Korps of Krieg as they battle the implacable Necrons. The title comes from the fact that the Kriegers have no moral compunction against sacrificing their own men to kill the enemy, and are all drilled to have no dreams, aspirations, or visions of the future beyond service in the Imperial Guard—and their inevitable death. They are so cold and emotionless as to creep out their fellow Guardsmen.
  • Another WH40K example: Within the Night Lords legion there was a practice of placing a suspended execution upon legionaries who warranted death, but were too valuable to be executed at present. Their gauntlets were painted arterial, or "sinner's" red and their lives continued at the whim of their primarch.
  • Discworld:
    Vimes realized he was a dead man bathing.
    • In Monstrous Regiment, mention is made of certain veterans who come back from the Forever War gray-faced with a Thousand-Yard Stare, stinking like death and keeping their coats very tightly buttoned despite the heat. One of them gives Polly the letter that jumpstarts the plot, and then dies immediately afterwards without a fuss.
  • One of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books features a pair of red-shirts called Dedman and Walken, who are (obviously) doomed.
  • Almost directly name-checked in the last book of the Ukiah Oregon series, when the leader of an outlaw biker gang familiar with the Pack (Ukiah's 'family') sees Ukiah looking beaten and bruised. "Looks like someone gave the Cub a going over. Who is that dead man?"
  • At one point in the novelization of Revenge of the Sith, Anakin starts losing the duel when Dooku starts taunting him over his fear of the anger in his heart, until Palpatine yells at him to use his fear and anger as his weapons to kill Dooku. At that point, the narration makes it clear that Dooku's a dead man; despite trying to keep up the fight, even he sees his impending death.
  • In Shadow of a Dark Queen, condemned criminals are drafted into a combat squad, told that they are legally dead and without rights, and forced to wear their nooses as a constant reminder of the alternative to service. The survivors of their major Suicide Mission are awarded their freedom at the end.
  • Horatio Hornblower short story "Hornblower and the Widow McCool" has Hornblower, as the junior lieutenant on the Renown, be given the morbid task of guarding an Irish rebel who is slated to hang. The other lieutenants and even Captain Sawyernote  express sympathy in a taciturn British way for young Hornblower having to shepherd around a man who is going to die. McCool himself is a Stepford Snarker who speaks with elaborate, nonchalant sarcasm, but it's revealed as the coping mechanism it is when he tries to speak of his own execution and stumbles into silence.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the second Horatio Hornblower episode, Bracegirdle's reaction to learning that Hornblower's division was exposed to The Black Death is "they are dead already." Captain Pellew isn't pleased to hear it, but he's clearly thinking the same thing. He agrees with Hornblower's suggestion to let them "quarantine" on the supply ship, not because he disagrees with Bracegirdle's assessment that they'll lose the ship because Hornblower's men will all be dead within the week—just that it's worth the risk because the food crisis is so dire. Hornblower does his best to keep his men from thinking they are dead men walking, but after stopping them from pushing a drunk man over the side, he notes that it was hardly a brave act to smell his breath to check for alcohol—if it was plague, he'd already have been infected and doomed whether he was standing close or not.
  • In Mythbusters, the Narrator often intones the phrase jokingly when referring to the (inanimate) victim of the day's experiment - usually Buster the crash test dummy but there's been "Dead Car Driving!" and others.
  • An NCIS episode titled "Dead Man Walking" involves a victim who has gotten radiation poisoning and the team has to figure out whodunit before he dies.
    • This premise gets reused in the NCIS: New Orleans episode "The Walking Dead."
    • NCIS also brings it up in the episode "Forced Entry," after McGee is tricked into drinking Gibbs' coffee:
      Marine Sgt. Hegarty: You never mess with a Marine's coffee, if you want to live, Agent DiNozzo.
      Tony DiNozzo: [laughs] That's right. Dead man walking!
    • Also comes up after everyone on the team learns about McGee's novel Deep Six, which has characters based on him and his co-workers. Including an Expy of Gibbs named "L. J. Tibbs."
      DiNozzo: Where is LJ, Dead Agent Walking?
  • The Thick of It episode "The Rise of the Nutters", to a politician who self-destructed on television:
    Malcolm Tucker: [when Ben enters a party] Oh, here he is. Dead man walking.
  • In the third episode of Stargate Atlantis, Rodney, who is starving because an Ancient device won't allow him to feed, abuses this phrase and its variants.
  • In a Torchwood episode titled "Dead Man Walking", Jack tries to resurrect someone with a magic resurrection gauntlet against the warning of his companions.
  • In the Gilmore Girls episode "Bridesmaids Revisited", Rory and Logan are at the wedding of Logan's sister. They encounter the groom in the hallway, and Logan has to help him get ready for the ceremony. He grabs his shoulder and calls out that phrase as they walk to his room.
  • In The IT Crowd, after Roy finds out via an online quiz that he will die tomorrow, he tells everyone to ignore it and that everything will be fine. Then, as he is walking to his desk, Moss yells out "Dead man walking!"
  • Referenced in the opening ballad of Breaking Bad episode, Negro Y Azul, how Walter's path will ultimately lead to his own downfall.
    But that homie's dead,
    He just don't know it yet.

    New Media 
  • There's a website with a feature called Dead Bro Walking, that focuses on the Black Dude Dies First trope.

    Professional Wrestling  
  • The Undertaker, in 2002 started using theme music with ominous bells and the phrase "Dead Man Walking". Fans remember it as the year he beat Hulk Hogan.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer Fantasy: Slayers are those dwarfs who have sworn to seek out an honourable death in battle after committing some terrible crime or crossing the Despair Event Horizon. They wear distinctive dyed mohawks to indicate that they're marked for death; those who survive many battles are considered terribly unlucky, but are incredible warriors.

    Video Games 
  • In Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, there is a minigame titled "Dead Man Walking" in which you fight infinitely respawning enemies, trying to take as many as you can with you.
  • Dragon Age: Origins: All Grey Wardens, due to the Taint. Also, Wynne and, more figuratively speaking, the Legion Of The Dead. Their initiation is a dwarven funeral rite. Since they are already dead, they have nothing to fear.
  • In Crysis, everyone who puts on a Nanosuit. More literally, Alcatraz, the Player Character in the second game.
    Hargreave: This isn't a war ordinary men can win! This is the future. Death's an inconvenience now, nothing more. We are all dead men walking.
  • Thane Krios from Mass Effect 2. He has an incurable disease that slowly destroys his ability to breathe, and all the doctors say he'll be dead in less than a year. If he survives Mass Effect 2's Suicide Mission, then when you meet him again in Mass Effect 3, he tells you that the doctors say he'll be dead in around three months... and he last talked to them nine months ago. Later on, he manages to drive off Kai Leng from the salarian Councilor despite his disease, leaving him barely able to breathe. Unfortunately, Leng inflicted a near-fatalwound on Thane before he fled, and Thane's disease made it impossible for the doctors to repair, leading to his death shortly after.
  • In Red Dead Redemption 2, Arthur Morgan becomes this as early as in Chapter 2 due to being coughed on by a sickly debtor, unintentionally causing Arthur to contract Tuberculosis, which ultimately kills him by the end of his story.
  • In The Walking Dead: Season One, Lee is bitten by a walker in Episode 4. Regardless of if he cut off the infected arm, he will die at the end of the season, and is either shot in the head by Clementine or left to turn.
  • In Yakuza: Dead Souls, Goro Majima gets bit by a zombie. By the next chapter of the game, he is falling ill and his eye is turning red. He goes to a sauna in a last-ditch effort to cure himself. Ultimately subverted: the zombie that bit him wore dentures and never actually infected him. The sickness and the redness in his eye? Just allergies.

    Visual Novels 

    Web Comics 
  • In an issue of Tales Of Zenith a gallon of milk in a store wants to sneak to the front of the display case. The reason is, his expiration date is yesterday, which means he'll be burst and dumped down the sewer if he can't escape by being bought. The cottage cheese and sour cream notice this, and they call out Dead Milk Walking!

    Western Animation