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It feels like there should be a story behind it, or perhaps a type of slang, but I can't find anything in various Web searches.

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possible duplicate of "Dead simple.." vs. "Really simple.." –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 21:38
    
From a long-time TidBITS subscriber and reader, welcome to ELU! –  Gnawme Dec 13 '11 at 22:48
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Dead here means utterly, absolutely, which is not a slang usage. Etymonline suggests that it hails from the 14th century, but does not explain whence it derived:

Used from 16c. in adj. sense of "utter, absolute, quite" (cf. dead drunk first attested 1590s; dead heat, 1796). As an adv., from late 14c. Dead on is 1889, from marksmanship.

I would guess the following: death -> permanence -> absoluteness. But this is all speculation. I doubt you'll ever find an authoritative history of this evolution.

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The expressions dead drunk and dead quiet actually make sense for both meanings of dead. Since dead drunk was apparently first, it's possible this contributed to the coining of this expression. –  Peter Shor Dec 13 '11 at 21:39
    
It's interesting that you mention it because I had written and considered adding a sentence or two on the possibility of dead drunk being the bridge between these two usages of dead. Now I think I'll leave it to the comments :) –  Daniel Dec 13 '11 at 21:47
    
And here is dead silent from 1753, well before the 1796 dead heat attestation in etymonline. –  Peter Shor Nov 15 '12 at 22:06
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In expressions like dead simple, dead easy, dead on, or dead right, dead is used as an adverb, meaning completely or extremely.

Etymonline indicates some of the history:

Used from 16c. in adj. sense of "utter, absolute, quite" (cf. dead drunk first attested 1590s; dead heat, 1796). As an adv., from late 14c. Dead on is 1889, from marksmanship.

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A very common usage of dead in the same sense: "He came in dead last" –  Juan Mendes Dec 14 '11 at 1:29
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