A heavily armed, masked gunman opened fire in a packed Colorado movie theatre during a midnight screening of the new Batman movie, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others.

Investigators are now trying to dismantle sophisticated explosives found in the suspect’s apartment rigged with booby traps, apparently intended to harm officers arriving on the scene.

The mass shooting took place Friday at the Century 16 Theatre in Aurora, Colorado, about 16 kilometres outside of Denver.

Movie-goers had just settled into their seats to watch the latest installment in the Batman movie franchise, ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ when a gunman released a canister of some type of noxious gas and began firing into the crowd around 12:30 a.m.

Ten people were killed on the scene and two others died in hospital. Dozens of others, including children, were taken to area hospitals with varying injuries, but not all of them were shot, police said. Several remain in critical condition.

"Every few seconds it was just boom, boom, boom," witness Jennifer Seeger said. "He would reload and shoot and anyone who would try to leave would just get killed."

“There were bullet holes in some people's backs, in some people's arms,” Donovan Tate told a local news station.

Police have identified the suspect as 24-year-old James Holmes, who was arrested behind the theatre without incident.

Holmes was studying neuroscience at the University of Colorado-Denver until he dropped out of the PhD program about a month ago, according to a university spokesperson.

Police said the suspect wore a riot helmet, a bullet-proof vest, and leg, groin and throat protectors. He had a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and two pistols, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said.

The guns were purchased legally at local gun shops over the last 60 days, Oates told reporters.

The suspect purchased more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition online, including a 100-round drum magazine that was recovered from the scene, Oates said.

Even with a semi-automatic weapon, the drum would have allowed the shooter to discharge between 50 and 60 bullet rounds within one minute, he said.

Police have not speculated on a motive, but New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the suspect had dyed his hair red and called himself the Joker, after the villain in the Batman movies.

Kelly said he was briefed on the shooting, but Oates would not confirm what was said in the briefing.

The discovery of explosives has prompted the evacuation of the suspect’s apartment building, as well as several others nearby. A team of experts trying to safely detonate the bombs will take a break from the delicate task until Saturday, Oates said.

“I personally have never seen anything like what the pictures show us in there,” he said. “I see an awful lot of wires, trip wires, jars full of ammunition, jars full of liquid, things that look like mortar rounds.”

One of Holmes’ neighbours, Kaitlyn Fonzi, told The Denver Post that techno music started blaring from the suspect’s apartment around midnight, apparently set on a timer.

She went upstairs to investigate and knocked on his door. No one answered. When she grabbed the doorknob, she realized the door was unlocked, but decided not to enter the apartment.

It’s possible that if she had opened the door, explosives inside would have detonated.

Oates said the only offence on the suspect’s record was a speeding ticket. The FBI said there’s no indication the shooting is tied to a terrorist group.

Witnesses described a surreal, chaotic scene as bullets started flying in the dimly lit theatre. Many said they initially thought the man, outfitted with a gas mask and holding a military-style weapon, was putting on a promotional stunt for the movie.

It’s believed that the shooter bought a ticket for the movie and walked into the theatre with the rest of the crowd. It appears that he propped an exit door open and then reappeared with weapons.

Movie-goers, many who were teenagers, scrambled to dodge the gunfire.

“The first thing we see is a 13, 14-year-old girl with a bullet wound in her leg, in her stomach, and probably in her chest,” said witness Shayla Roeder. “I think she was right there about to die.”

Police said they will not release the names of the victims until all the families are notified.

Three members of the U.S. military from the nearby Buckley Air Force Base were also wounded in the theatre, and one is still unaccounted for, the Pentagon said.  

Local reporter Bertha Lynn described the scene in Aurora on Friday as “terrifying.”

“The thing that comes to mind immediately is the Columbine High School shooting, this incident dredges up those horrible memories.”

The mass shooting, the deadliest in the U.S. since an Army psychiatrist killed 13 soldiers and civilians at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, shocked residents throughout the country.

During a campaign stop in Florida, U.S. President Barack Obama offered his condolences to the Aurora community. He said Friday was a day for “prayer and reflection.

“If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious.”

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney also offered his condolences.

Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper said, “The pain and the grief is too intense for words,” during a press conference Friday afternoon.

“There is not one of us that doesn’t read or hear of this story and think about if it was your child in that movie theatre.”

Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said it was a tragic day for the community.

“We’ve taken a blow today, but we will get back on our feet and we will move ahead,” he said, urging parents in the city to talk to their children about the shooting. “Let them know that this is an isolated incident. It’s tragic, and it’s horrible, but it’s isolated.”

Police released a written statement from Holmes' family Friday: "Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved."

Meanwhile, many in the Denver suburb of 325,000 are left wondering what would provoke such an attack in the community.

With files from The Associated Press