The man who was shot dead by police Wednesday at a movie theatre in the Nashville, Tenn., suburb of Antioch was mentally ill and armed with a pellet gun, authorities say.

Vincente David Montano, 29, was shot dead inside the movie theatre after he stormed into a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road wearing a surgical mask and wielding an axe, a pellet gun and pepper spray.

Earlier Wednesday, authorities had said the assailant was a 51-year-old man armed with a regular gun and had exchanged fire with a police officer before being shot dead. Police now say he was 29 and armed with a pellet gun.

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The theatre attack occurred at the Carmike Hickory 8 movie complex in the Nashville suburb of Antioch.

Investigators say Montano was also carrying two backpacks, one of which had a fake device made to look like a bomb.

Metro Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron said at a news conference late Wednesday that Montano, of Nashville, had "significant psychiatric or psychological issues."

He had been committed four times for psychiatric treatment and was arrested in 2004 for assault and resisting arrest, Aaron said. A fingerprint taken at the theatre matched that from his arrest, he added.

Minor injuries

Three people were treated for exposure to pepper spray, including a 58-year-old man who also suffered a superficial wound to his shoulder, likely from the axe, Brian Haas of the Nashville Fire Department told reporters. None of the victims were taken to hospital.

A man who spoke to reporters outside the theatre said he had no idea why he and six others were attacked.

The man was identified by a police spokesman only as Steven because his family "does not want any kind of 15 minutes of fame."

Aaron said there were eight people in the theatre for the screening, including the suspect.

Steven and his daughter were among three people pepper-sprayed, and he was cut by the suspect's hatchet.

The victim said he had "no idea why this gentleman decided to attack us."

Theatre shootings

The incident comes less than two weeks after three people were killed and nine were wounded when a gunman opened fire in a movie theatre in Lafayette, La. The gunman was among the dead.

Wednesday's attack was on the minds of many in Tennessee.

"This makes me want to hug my mother," said Calvin Johnson, 17, who was at a restaurant about  45 metres from the theatre.

Two employees of a nearby Starbucks said they heard three or four gunshots and saw several police cars, fire trucks and ambulances responding.

The attack comes three years after 12 people were slain and dozens wounded by a gunman at a cinema in Aurora, Col., during a midnight screening of the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises.

With files from Reuters