★ out of four stars

Rating: R for strong horror violence and gore, and pervasive language.

Where: Brooklyn Center 20.

"There's always an audience for horror," remarks a student filmmaker in "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead." "Yeah," retorts a skeptical colleague, "good horror!" Zombie king Romero, who spawned a generation of nightmares with 1968's "Night of the Living Dead," can still raise a goosebump. But after four decades and five returns to the subject, he's operating far below the level of his groundbreaking masterpiece. Using the weary structural device of a film-within-a-film, "Diary" presents itself as documentary footage shot by a troupe of Pittsburgh undergrads when their film-class mummy movie was interrupted by shambling cadavers with the munchies.

"Diary" lacks physical and emotional energy, and Romero's use of visuals and lighting are pedestrian, but he does have a feel for gore. Much of the film's modest budget was allocated to gut-churning special effects. One lumbering hulk, bashed on the noggin with a beaker of hydrochloric acid, keeps on coming until his dissolving head resembles a plum with a big bite taken out of it. There are flinch-inducing scenes of cranial matter exploding from dozens of heads; the final image might be the ugliest I have ever seen. Yet the characters are so thin and the framework so unconvincing that they add up to a big shrug. The real shock of the film is Romero's callous inclusion of actual accident and disaster footage to pad out the running time. It's a shame to speak ill of the dead, but Romero leaves us no alternative.